Good food. Beautiful scenery. Dreadful writing. That’s Vanilla Beans and Brodo: Real Life in the Hills of Tuscany in a nutshell. In this book, Isabella Dusi, an Australian expat, takes us through a year in Montalcino, the Tuscan town where, at the time of writing, she had lived with her husband for five years.
By writing not about her first years in Tuscany, but about her fifth year, it seems that Dusi was trying to set her book apart from the usual fish-out-of-water expat tales that are so popular. I appreciate that, but in reading this book, I realized that those stories are popular because they are entertaining. The few stories in this book that did entertain me were ones where Dusi wrote about her own cultural awkwardness. But even those stories weren’t well executed.
The main problem is the writing. Dusi’s writing is technically correct, most of the time, but it never rises above being merely perfunctory. There’s little to no sense of passion in her words. Her primary method of expressing passion was to use an exclamation point, whether or not the sentence itself seemed to convey excitement! (!) Her diction is also frequently awkward, almost as if English weren’t her native language. When I encountered passages like, “My eyes and mouth are open to the maximum as Luigi rushes on,” I couldn’t tell if she was trying to use unusual language (instead of , say, “my mouth hangs open, and my eyes are wide”), or if she really doesn’t know how awkward her words sound. I suppose five years of immersion in Italian could affect her English, but in that case, where was her editor?
You might be thinking, “Well, okay, the writing needs work, but it’s about Tuscany! Glorious Tuscany! Surely, that can help you see past the infelicitous writing.” If only that were the case. There are some nice descriptions, particularly of the food and wine, but the narrative is so hard to follow that I could never feel immersed in this world. Each chapter covers a different topic, but the stories meander from one thing to another without any clear direction, and many characters appear briefly, never to reappear—or only to reappear long after they’re forgotten. The effect is one of incoherence. And then there are strange gaps. For example, in an early chapter, Dusi describes the build-up to a major annual archery competition. It’s clear that this is the event of the year in Montalcino. The pride of each quartiere (or neighborhood) rests on the results. The archers assemble:
Two of them will bring glory and honour to their quartiere, earning a coveted place in the long history of village archery.
On the field, Carlo and Pierluigi, two archers from the quartiere of Travaglio, explode into a passionate embrace. Arms clasp one another, each archer’s bow is pressed tightly into the other’s back, they jump and sway until finally they fall into the grass, rolling from side to side, throwing their arms up and thrusting their bows to the sky, disbelieving yet rejoicing in their incredible victory.
Do you notice something missing here? How about the actual archery competition? So much for basic storytelling.
I would have given up on this book after 50 pages (I give every book 50 pages), but I was reading it for my book club. After I dragged myself to the ending (with much skimming), I held off on writing my review, thinking perhaps my book club could give me a reason to recommend this book to someone. I speculated that the book was suffering in comparison to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, another travel book (a good one!) that I happened to be listening to as I was reading this. But it appears that I wasn’t alone; within my book group, the opinion was unanimous. The book is dreadful. It did get some good reviews on Amazon, but most seem to come from people who have been to Montalcino, and I can see how reading about a place you’ve been to and loved would be a nice way to relive a good vacation. But if you’re not predisposed to love all things Montalcinese, find yourself another way to experience Tuscany. I can’t recommend this one.