A loud voice pierced the dreamy stillness of Frances Mayes’s rose-and-lavender-filled Tuscan garden. ”Is this the house?” an American tourist hollered up from the iron gate. With sudden awe, he added, ”Is that Ed?”
Ed Mayes, the husband of Frances Mayes, the author of two best-selling memoirs about restoring their villa in Tuscany, politely made his way down a steep path lined with grapevines where the unexpected visitor, Les, a film teacher from Syracuse, and three friends stood waiting. One of the men fell to his knees and performed a mock salaam.
Les from Syracuse excitedly yelled at his cringing girlfriend to get the camera. ”We came to Tuscany for one reason,” he said. ”To search out this house.”
As Mrs. Mayes signed their copies of her book outside her gate, Les pursued his vicarious intimacy with Ed. (”Ed, do you still have the Alfa?” he asked. Mr. Mayes, nonplused, said he had replaced it with a newer model.)
The visitors craned for a better look at Bramasole, the apricot-colored 18th-century villa below an Etruscan wall, the center of the odyssey that turned a middle-aged creative writing teacher at San Francisco State University into a best-selling author and cult figure.
She said her role model is the French novelist Colette, and quotes Octavio Paz and Homer in her books. She bristles at analogies to Martha Stewart. ”I don’t identify with her particularly, except that I’ve always loved houses,” Mrs. Mayes said in her soft Georgia way. ”The metaphor of the house as the self.”
Every day in the high season, 30 to 40 tourists, Americans, and also devotees from Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries, stop at the iron gates, hungry to savor her lyrical account of replastering walls, beams, clearing ivy, cajoling Italian contractors and finding the perfect olive oil.
In the central square of the Renaissance hill town of Cortona, two miles away, acolytes retrace Mrs. Mayes’s shopping route the way medieval pilgrims once followed the Stations of the Cross.
”Under the Tuscan Sun” was published in 1996 (Broadway). This year’s sequel, ”Bella Tuscany,” (Broadway) is a travel memoir that includes descriptions of Venice and Sicily. Mrs. Mayes’s books do not try for sophisticated analysis of Italian culture. (”I don’t understand why the Mafia can’t be stopped,” she wrote in Sicily.)
Rather, crammed with her musings, descriptions of waxing stone floors, gardening and recipes for bruschetta and wild mushroom lasagna, the books read like a poetic home improvement magazine. Even prosaic Italian words like armadio, which means closet, are lovingly italicized.
Mrs. Mayes’s discovery of Cortona has done for Tuscany what Peter Mayle’s best-selling books about Provence did for the south of France.
Mrs. Mayes and Mr. Mayle are often compared, and sometimes confused (Mrs. Mayes said she recently got a fan letter addressed to Frances Mayle) but they have never met.
Mrs. Mayes said she sat two tables away from him at a recent book fair in Nice, France. ”He never looked my way,” she said. ”I thought it was very strange.”
”Under the Tuscan Sun” has sold more than 900,000 copies, and the sequel is currently on The New York Times’s best-seller list.
Her books have prompted many copycat books, including ”The Hills of Tuscany,” (Albatross Publishing, 1998) by Ferenc Mate, a painter and a writer from New York who bought and fixed up a villa near Montepulciano (about 30 miles southwest of Cortona), and ”Private Tuscany,” a coffee-table book about the interiors of villas of aristocrats and fashion designers written by Elizabeth Helman Minchilli, an American writer who lives in Rome.
This American fixation with crumbling villas and recipes for toasted bread delights and bewilders Cortona’s 23,000 residents.
”Bramasole is a nice house, but it has no real architectural significance,” said Emmanuele Rachini, the Mayor of Cortona, which boasts art works by Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli, a Renaissance cathedral and admirers like Montesquieu and Henry James. ”I haven’t read Mrs. Mayes’s book, but I am told it discusses very nicely the atmosphere here, our people and our way of life.”
Both ”Under the Tuscan Sun” and its sequel have been translated into 14 languages. English, French, German and Dutch editions are in every bookstore window in Cortona. Mrs. Mayes said she is in negotiations for an Italian-language edition, but so far, no contract has been signed. Many major Italian publishing houses turned it down.
”I hear Americans are now crazy about Italian coffee and can tell the difference between olive oil from Umbria and Le Marche,” said Marco Vigevani, editorial director for fiction and nonfiction at Mondadori, Italy’s largest publishing house. ”But it is difficult for us Italians to see Tuscans as exotic animals.”
He said Italian readers would be more interested in a similar memoir of New England. ”I should commission an Italian writer to do a ‘Under the Vermont Snow,’ ” Mr. Vigevani said wryly. His version would highlight leaf-peeping (sbirciare le foglie) and varieties of maple syrup (sciroppo d’acero).
But Mrs. Mayes’s books tap another American obsession besides life style: midlife crisis. Mrs. Mayes, who is in her 50’s, decided to buy a house in Tuscany after a long marriage ended in a bitter divorce. Using her settlement, she bought the house with her new boyfriend, Ed Klein schmidt, a younger poetry teacher at San Francisco State University, where they both still teach. After their marriage in the spring of 1998, he took her surname.
In one funny moment in her memoir, she was so wrapped up in her new life that she failed to recognize her former husband at their daughter’s wedding. He has never congratulated his former wife on her success.
”We hope he is grinding his teeth,” Mr. Mayes chimed in with a smile.
Her most ardent fans are middle-aged divorced women, who fantasize about such a triumphant second act.
”My wife has been reading ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ to me in the car as we drive,” Alexander Cherney, 71, a tourist from Montreal, said a bit wearily as he sat in a cafe. ”But we did find a good recipe in there for pasta with pancetta and porcini mushrooms.”
Photo: Two best-selling memoirs about restoring Bramasole, an 18th-century villa in Cortona, Tuscany, have won a cult following for Frances Mayes and her husband, Ed, both teachers at San Francisco State University. (James Hill for The New York Times) Map of Italy highlighting Cortona.