Women in Sunlight

Women in Sunlight

by Frances Mayes


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The story of four American strangers who bond in Italy and change their lives over the course of an exceptional year, from the bestselling author of Under the Tuscan Sun.
Don’t miss Frances Mayes in PBS’s Dream of Italy: Tuscan Sun Special!

She watches from her terrazza as the three American women carry their luggage into the stone villa down the hill. Who are they, and what brings them to this Tuscan village so far from home? An expat herself and with her own unfinished story, she can’t help but question: will they find what they came for?

Kit Raine, an American writer living in Tuscany, is working on a biography of her close friend, a complex woman who continues to cast a shadow on Kit’s own life. Her work is waylaid by the arrival of three women—Julia, Camille, and Susan—all of whom have launched a recent and spontaneous friendship that will uproot them completely and redirect their lives. Susan, the most adventurous of the three, has enticed them to subvert expectations of staid retirement by taking a lease on a big, beautiful house in Tuscany. Though novices in a foreign culture, their renewed sense of adventure imbues each of them with a bright sense of bravery, a gusto for life, and a fierce determination to thrive. But how? With Kit’s friendship and guidance, the three friends launch themselves into Italian life, pursuing passions long-forgotten—and with drastic and unforeseeable results.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451497673
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 19,546
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

FRANCES MAYES is the author of seven books about Tuscany, including the now-classic Under the Tuscan Sun—which was a New York Times bestseller for more than two and a half years and became a Touchstone movie starring Diane Lane. It was followed by Bella Tuscany and two illustrated books, In Tuscany and Bringing Tuscany Home. She is also the author of the novel Swan, six books of poetry, and The Discovery of Poetry. Her books have been translated into fifty-four languages.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Frances Mayes

BY CHANCE, I WITNESSED THE arrival of the three American women. I’d been reading in my garden for a couple of hours, taking a few notes and making black dots in the margins, a way to locate interesting sentences later without defacing the book. Around four thirty on these early darkening days, some impulse toward dinner quickens, and I began to consider the veal chops in the fridge and to think of cutting a bunch of the chard still rampaging through the orto. Chard with raisins, garlic, and orange peel. Thyme and parsley for the tiny potatoes Colin dug at the end of summer. Since the nights were turning chilly, I put down my book, grabbed the wood-carrier from the house, and walked out to the shed to fetch olive tree prunings for the fireplace grill.


Yet another escape. I am putting off writing about Margaret, my difficult and rigorous friend, whose writing I admired. Oh, still admire, but this project feels more like trying to strike mildewed matches—I keep rereading instead of writing. I’ve read her Stairs to Palazzo del Drago a dozen times.


A book can be a portal. Each one I’ve written firmly sealed off one nautiline chamber (Is nautiline a word? Meaning pertaining to a nautilus?), and then opened into the next habitable space. Always before, my subjects chose me. I’m the happy follower of fleeting images that race ahead, sometimes just out of sight, of lines that U-turn and break like the downside of heartbeats. Isn’t boustrophedon the ongoing form of writing that mimics the turns an ox makes when plowing a field?


At times, writing conflagrates, a vacant-lot fire started by bad boys. That’s when I’m elated. But this time, I chose my friend as the subject. I feel as I did in college, slugging out a research paper on “The Concept of Time in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.” I enjoyed the work but immediately felt humiliated by my limits.


I’m easily distractible. Those shriveled apples on the third terrace, still golden and dangling as brightly as in the myth of the three graces, lure me to make a galette. Fitzy has burrs in his silky hair and needs brushing. My own hair has turned unruly. I would like to have a few friends over for polenta with mushrooms and sausage, now that the funghi porcini are sprouting under every oak tree. My mind surfs over endless diversions.


When you’re propelled by a sense of duty, you’re easy to derail.


As I picked dried branches from the woodpile, I looked down from the upper olive terrace as Gianni, the local driver, turned sharply into the long drive of the Malpiedi place across the road, his white van crackling over dry stubble. Malpiedi—Bad Feet. I’ve always loved the Italian names that remind me of ones my friends and I adopted when we played Wild Indians in the vacant lot by my family’s house in Coral Gables. Wandering Bear, Deer Heart, Straight Arrow. One friend chose Flushing Toilet. But here it’s Bucaletto, Hole in the Bed; Zappini, Little Hoe; Tagliaferro, Iron Cutter; and stranger, Taglialagamba, He Cuts the Leg—maybe a butcher specializing in leg of lamb? Cipollini, Little Onion; Tagliasopra, Cut Above; Bellocchio, Beautiful Eye—how alive those names are.


Early in my years in Italy, fascinated by every syllable, I used to collect them. In hotels when there were telephone books, I’d read the names at night for the pleasure of coming upon Caminomerde, Chimney Shit—there’s a story there—and Pippisecca, Dry Pipe (or Penis); and Pescecane, Dog Fish. The sublime Botticelli? Little Barrel.


The Bad Feet were gone now. I attended the wake for Luisa, the wife, who had an erotically decorated cake at her last birthday—figures like those feasting frescoes from Pompeii in the Naples museum, where the phallus is so large it’s carried forth on a tray. Passing by their table in the restaurant where she was celebrating with friends, I was shocked to look down at the garish pink and green cake everyone was laughing over. After that, I was embarrassed when I saw plump, stoop-shouldered, rabbit-eyed Tito, her husband. She died of diverticulitis, some sudden rupture I couldn’t help but think was caused by too much cake, and Tito followed all too shortly. He did choke, but on pork arista, with no one around to perform the Heimlich. I try not to imagine his rheumy eyes popping out of their sockets. The daughter, Grazia, who snorts then brays when she laughs, painted some rooms, put in a dishwasher, and listed the house for lease before she went to live with her failing aunt in town. (I later learned that the rental terms included an option to buy after one year.) Grazia was not coming back to rattle around in the big stone house that was cool in the summer and cool in the winter. I missed them as neighbors. I even missed the years of Grazia’s squealing violin practice, Luisa’s piano, and Tito’s sax. Hours of sour notes wafting up the hill. We’d lived parallel lives on the same slope for eleven years, and then within six months the house stood empty, with the kitchen shutter banging in the night when the tramontana blew in from the Alps.


I’ve always loved their house—its big square self, rooted firmly on a long flat spur of our terraced hillside, and the great portone with sphinx-face doorknockers popular from the time Italy was ransacking Egypt. Over the door, the fanlight’s fanciful iron curls, twisted around the letter S, the initial, I suppose, of the person who built such a solid structure three hundred years ago. If you cut away the jasmine vines, you’d see VIRET IN AETERNUM, It Flourishes Forever. A prideful motto. The house’s name—Villa Assunta. Perhaps it was finished around the holiday Ferragosto, when the Virgin Mary assumed into heaven. Six big square rooms up, six down. Afterthought bathrooms but okay.


I would sometimes take Tito and Luisa a basket of plums when my trees were dripping with them. As their door swung open, a splash of light pooled on the waxed bricks. At the end of the hall I saw the great large-paned window full of splayed green linden leaves, and in winter angular black limbs like a dashed-off charcoal sketch.




DOWN IN THE OLIVE GROVE, I saw Gianni’s van weave in and out of sight. Through silvery trees, glimpses of white, scree of trees, flash of white. He descended the rough drive, pulling into the weedy parking spot beside the house, where Luisa often used to leave her blue Fiat Cinquecento ragtop open to the rain. I always wanted to use that image in a poem but it never fit.


Three women got out, hardly the three graces as they dragged carry-on bags and clumsy backpacks and totes. Gianni hauled out four mastodon-sized suitcases and struggled each one to the door. I couldn’t hear the women, who appeared to be exclaiming and laughing. I supposed they were here for an autumn vacation. There’s a certain kind of traveler who shuns the hectic summer months and arrives for the season of more solitude. I hoped they would not be noisy; sound travels in the hills. If their husbands are arriving and boozy dinners ensue, there could be chaos. Who are they? Not young. I could see that.


My own arrival here, Dio—twelve years ago, seems as vivid as yesterday. I stepped out of the car, looked up at the abandoned stone farmhouse, and I knew, what did I know? This is it. This is where I invent the future.


Could they be thinking the same? And Margaret, too, my subject, my lost friend, once arrived long, long before me at her golden stone house below the tower of Il Palazzone (big palazzo indeed), not knowing what life she might find. What she did find immediately was a huge, squealing pig left shut in the lower level by the farmers/former owners (peasants, she called them) as a gift.


Margaret was a firm exile, not like me, a come-and-go one, and in her embroidered slippers and Venetian black devoré velvet coat, nothing like these latest arrivals in magenta, orange, saffron puffy down jackets and boots.


The one in the electric magenta hoists a dog carrier out of the van’s rear door. She kneels and releases a small toffee-colored yapper that starts up right away running in circles around all of them, almost lifting off the ground with joy. So, I guessed, since they’ve brought a dog, they’re not here for a brief holiday.


Gathering more fire starter, I fell into sort of a reverie. Their gestures and movements below me seemed suddenly distant, a static tableau. Some latter-day illustration for a medieval book of

hours: under a dapple-gray sky, the stalwart house catching late rays, stones gleaming as if covered with snail tracks; the windows’ mottled glass bouncing back the sunlight as mirror. Between Villa Assunta and me, elongated shadows of cypress trees stripe the village road. As if behind veils (for the afternoon light here turns to a pale, honeyed transparency), the slow-motion

women walk toward the door, where Gianni fumbles with the iron key that used to hang by a tattered orange ribbon on a hook inside the door. I knew they’d soon inhale the old-book smell of the closed house. They’d step in and see that hall window back-blazed with golden linden leaves, possibly would stop to take in a breath. Oh, so that’s where we are. Why did tears sting my eyes?


Oh, Luisa, you never did get that craggy mole taken off your chin, never even plucked the coarse spike of hair that I weirdly had the impulse to touch. Too late; you are gone (what, a year?), and Tito, too, with his huge phallus or not, his meek smile, and now almost totally erased are the many seasons in the great old cucina with a fireplace big enough to pull up a chair, pour a smidgen of vin santo, and tell stories of the war, when many local men walked home barefoot from Russia. That flaky Grazia could have had the yard cleared up a bit. All gone. Gone with the Wind, the book I devoured in my early teens. Still a great title. (Margaret also via col vento.) What a sharp writer, la Margherita. What glinting eyes. I used to study her clean, clipped prose style. I like to use and because for me everything connects. She never used and because for her, nothing connected. In writing, you can’t hide who you are.


Over the years her work simply evaporated from public view, even Sun Raining on Blue Flowers, which had impressive critical attention and despite that still managed to appear on best-seller lists. Most of my writer friends never have heard of her. I feel compelled to reawaken interest in her few books, not that I have the power to secure her a place in the canon, if the canon even still exists.



ARRIVALS. ALL POTENTIAL. I REMEMBER mine, the black iron key the real estate agent Pescecane (yes, Dogfish) handed over after I signed the last paper, me walking through the empty rooms—counting them: eleven, most of them small. Four below once housed farm animals and still had enormous, smooth stone floors and a rime of fluffy white mold from uric acid. Upstairs the ceilings soared because there had been attics (long since collapsed) for grain and chestnut storage. I’d forgotten the dank cantina tacked onto the long kitchen and dining room wing. I remember the creak of the latch, then pushing open the shutters, the view pouring in like grace received. Casa Fonte delle Foglie, fountain of leaves. Maybe that’s why I fell for it, that poetic name scrawled on the oldest local maps. Apt for my leafy plot of olive, linden, ilex, and pine layered around a curve of hillside. I’d only seen the inside once and didn’t even remember the two upstairs fireplaces, or the sagging beam in the kitchen. Not mouse skeletons in the pantry. My house from the outset seemed mine. I literally rolled up my sleeves and set to work.


What the three women are seeing now—will it imprint forever, or will it slowly fade once the vacation ends? Like that house I rented one July in the Mugello north of Florence—the vintage fridge formed such an igloo that the door wouldn’t close. If you touched the handle you got an icy shock. I can’t picture the bedrooms at all, but I remember decades-old Christmas cards and

christening invitations in the sideboard drawer. Memory has shut the doors all the way down a long hall. Only one stands open at the end, an empty white room with white pigeon dung in a line on the floor under a rafter. Who snatches up their roots and roosts in a foreign country where they have no people? I did. Margaret—well, she was born to roam. “Now you can never go home,” she used to threaten.


But you can go home; it’s not drastic, that is until you’re not sure where home is. How many hopefuls have I seen arrive and begin life here only to wake up one day—after the restoration, after the Italian class (I thought Italian was supposed to be easy), after the well gone dry, after the boozy lunch-after-lunch with others who speak little Italian, after stone-cold winter—and

think, What in hell am I doing here?


Even so, powerful propulsions drive us. Drove Margaret, drove me. In the Florence train station, arrival signs flash right next to the enticing departures. Treni in arrivi, treni in partenze, one suggesting the other. (I still want to board every one.) Margaret abandoned her Casa Gelsomino, Jasmine House. Long her destiny, then not. Two summers she returned, staying with us. By that time, she was critical of Italy, and one night when her patience snapped she said to me, “You’re like a child. Naïf. Perpetually astonished.” I said nothing. She’d ripped into me once before.


Colin chided her. “Oh, Margaret, you know that’s bullshit. Kit sees all.” And he poured her a shot of grappa to end the evening.


“Italy’s an old country. That, at least, you know. Babies are born old here. That you don’t know.” She threw back the grappa in a gulp, looked wide-eyed for a moment, and said, “Buona notte.”


And these three, just choosing their bedrooms and flinging their luggage on the bed, just noticing that these Tuscan manses have no closets, just a cavernous, creaky armadio in each room. What

brings them to Luisa’s stern villa? Is the end of their story already embedded in the beginning? Eliot’s in the beginning is my end exasperated me as a college junior. How dreary, I thought then, but now, I do wonder, when and how will my time here come to an end? Fate, too propitious a word—but what red thread connects an unforeseeable end to the day I arrived in a white sundress, opened the door, threw up my arms, twirled around—to the surprise of the agent—and shouted, I’m home.




WALKING TO THE HOUSE, BASKET of sticks in hand, last rays of sun exploding in molten splotches on the lakes out in the valley, an armful of chard, sprigs of thyme and rosemary in my pocket, Colin waving from the front door, Fitzy springing after a copper leaf spiraling toward the grass, Stairs to Palazzo del Drago left on a lawn chair, Gianni beeping, mouthing buona sera, signora as his van freed of passengers speeds by, a little music—Lucio Dalla?—drifting from my house, there, like that, the subject chose me.

Reading Group Guide

1. The ingredients, cooking, and eating of food are prominent features of Women in Sunlight. What did you take the descriptions of food to represent? For instance, what is the importance of hospitality and the sharing of meals, and do you see a connection between cooking and other forms of creativity?

2. At Susan’s beach house, she and her two new friends, Camille and Julia, discuss the expectation that life should “simplify” with age. Resisting this, they move to Tuscany “where life does not simplify, it complicates” (p. 51). Do you think this vision of Italy is correct? In what ways do their lives become more complex? Does life, in fact, simplify in other ways?

3. Susan references a theory that, in dreams, houses and their rooms represent the parts of one’s self. Do you think that the spaces the women occupy reflect the current states of their hearts and minds? How might Villa Assunta in Tuscany speak differently than their houses in America or the living units at Cornwallis Meadows?

4. Consider the following passage: “Why, they wonder after family life ended, didn’t more people banish loneliness and live together? Things, they conclude. People can’t part with their stuff, their mother’s stuff, attics and basements full of stuff” (p. 91). How do the women deal with the emotional weight of their things and the history they carry? What might be the importance of learning to “let go” of material possessions?

5. What were your first impressions of Susan, Camille, and Julia? What contrasting personality traits do they have, and how might they influence or inspire one another? How are they each stimulated and transformed by life in Italy?

6. What is Margaret’s purpose in the narrative? How might her relationship with Kit compare to the friendships among the other women?

7. As the women transition to life in Europe, what are the divergences from life in America? Did you notice any cultural gaps between the American women and the Italian locals?

8. Why do you think Julia considers the women innocent when they first arrive in Tuscany? Is this a trait that inevitably comes with traveling to new places? In what moments could you see them lose aspects of this innocence?

9. Julia channels her culinary passion and publishing experience into writing Learning Italian, which chronicles her journey of cooking the country’s food and learning its language. Could you read Women in Sunlight as, like Julia’s project becomes, a newcomer’s guide to life in Italy?

10. Thinking back on her time in Boulder, Kit remarks that “[t]hough I loved the town, it was not my place in the universe.” What, in your view, determines one’s place in the universe? Why is it that we are compelled to return to some places and not others?

11. How might Women in Sunlight challenge definitions of “home,” or of the family as a nuclear unit? Are we readers encouraged to be more flexible in our understandings of these concepts? Do you find the idea of communal living practiced in Women in Sunlight appealing?

12. What did you make of Julia’s tenuous relationship with her daughter, Lizzie, and Wade, her estranged husband? How do you think you would react if placed in Julia’s position?

13. As she reconnects with her artistic flair, how does Camille learn to grapple with grief and the death of her husband? What were your interpretations of her “paper doors”?

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Women in Sunlight 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had no idea that I was reading the day to day story of someone’s life. I was waiting for the climax! Here are the great things about this book... the descriptions of the locations and the foods! The way that the women enjoyed the details of their lives (or the way that the author portrayed them). Other than not having a direction and it being never ending with hardly a flutter of suspense or excitement, it was elegantly written. Confused? Me too.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I felt as if I had to race over all the adjectives to get to a plot. It was cumbersome. You had to scan each paragraph to find the life in a scene or character. The author's descriptions are rich but too wordy. It would have been better if stated more directly and if the over 400 pages had more plot.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What great timing to read this as I’m preparing for a trip to Tuscany. I have been many times before but now have a new vision of what I might find. Thank you, Frances Mayes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm ready to take the leap!
TheCandidCover More than 1 year ago
Women in Sunlight by Frances Mayes is a book that will appeal to those who enjoy travel and learning about other cultures. The story has some wonderful elements that describe life in Tuscany and the concept is quite interesting. Unfortunately, there are just too many characters to keep track of in the novel, which distracts the reader from the main plot. This is my first Frances Mayes novel. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading her popular book, Under the Tuscan Sun, but have heard wonderful things. When I saw this book available for review, I was intrigued by the synopsis and the fact that Mayes’ novels are so-well loved. Women in Sunlight is a story that follows the lives of older women who decide that life is still worth living, so they pack up and move to Italy to explore. I have read one other book recently that discusses aging, and it is a topic that I am sure is going to become increasingly popular as our populations age. I really enjoyed the Tuscan elements that are what really pull the book together. Aspects of the region’s food, travel, art, gardening, and much more are brought to life through the characters’ experiences. It is definitely reminiscent of Peter Mayle’s Provence series, as the main characters have moved to a European region and immersed themselves in the every day life of a small town. The friendship of the 60 year old women really takes root as well, as they encourage each other to hone in on their skills of cooking, art, and gardening. While there is much to enjoy about the concept and the theme of friendship, the writing was not as wonderful as I had expected. There are far too many side characters in the novel. I actually lost track of quite a few and just got tired of trying to remember who some of them were. Also, there is a side story that was interesting, but really could have been a whole story on its own. The book just felt as though it was smashed together with lots of bits and pieces that were really unnecessary. Women in Sunlight is a book that will offer it’s readers a virtual trip to Italy. The story really gives a sense of the culture and the people that make up a small Tuscan village. It’s exploration of friendship and living life to the fullest make the book an interesting read. However, the story does become tiresome to read as there is an abundance of characters to remember and a side story that distracts from the main plot.
SherreyM More than 1 year ago
Frances Mayes provides another vicarious and wondrous trip to Italy within the pages of Women in Sunlight. Casting her characters as four women who have reached that middle stage of life and just beyond she delighted me, as a woman similarly aged, as I watched three of the women parry with their children over their living arrangements. The fourth woman was waited in the wings, already established in an Italian village. The three American women meet while attending an introduction to a retirement facility. As they share their stories and find common lines being drawn between them, an idea germinates and is nurtured by their desire to go somewhere, to do something they've never done, and to live for a time as housemates. The American trio happen upon a villa near the home of the fourth woman, a poet living with her partner. Quickly, she becomes a quasi tour guide, recipe sharer, cook, travel companion, and...well, that would give too much away about this character. The four women also find enjoyable independent pasttimes. Romance is almost inevitable while in Italy and so writes Frances Mayes. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Perhaps part of me wished I was in the midst of the group, and yet my comfy chair, glass of wine, and book in hand at home was also a delightful way to travel. I highly recommend this book to fans of Frances Mayes, travel to and in Italy, the boomer years, mid-life and beyond, and showing your family how to really live as you age.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Heartwarming ?
Carolefort More than 1 year ago
Thank you to Crown Publishing and NetGalley for providing an e-galley of Women in Sunlight by Frances Mayes in exchange for an honest review. Very rarely do I reach the end of a novel and wish it would go on for hundreds of pages. Frances Mayes, the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, captures the imagination of the reader through exquisite language and with obvious love to describe the landscape, the history, the food, the wines, the architecture and the people of Tuscany. This is the story of three American older single women, Camille, Julia and Susan. They are in the process of assessing retirement communities in the US when, on a whim, they lease a villa in Tuscany for a year and move in together. They become friends with Kit, also an American expat, who happens to be their neighbor. The four women, while getting acquainted and becoming good friends, encourage each other to make the best of what Tuscany can teach them. The year will prove to be life-changing for all of them. By the end of the book, you will be in love with Tuscany and see it through the eyes of Kit, Camille, Julia and Susan. What a joy this book is. Women in Sunlight is a treasure to be re-read more than once and savoured over and over again.
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
It took me about twice as long as normal to finish this novel because I had to stop and cook and eat so many times! This is one of those books that awake you to the extraordinary friends you need to touch base with, the pasta you haven't made lately, the clothes you don't have yet and the travel you need to erase from your bucket list and just order tickets. And if you paid attention you will know to leave the return trip date open. Three middle aged, currently alone ladies meet at the open house and orientation of a Senior Living community in Chapel Hill, NC, and decide to touch base after the day's events. All are ready to down size, to spend a lot less time on cleaning and home maintenance and more time footloose and fancy free. They want to travel. They want to see the world. And Cornwallis Meadows would make that all possible. When the time comes they could move from the apartment to assisted living to skilled nursing care as needed. Or they can just pool their funds and go to Europe for a year while they make up their minds.... I don't know how many books by Frances Mayes you can read before you have to go to Tuscany. But I fear I'm in the ballpark....