A WINDOW ON PROVENCE: ONE SUMMER'S SOJOURN INTO THE SIMPLE LIFE By Bo Niles, New York: Viking, 191 pp., $18.95 A YEAR IN PROVENCE, By Peter Mayle, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 207 pp., $19.95
IDYLLIC places - and most visitors think that Provence, in the south of France, qualifies - are difficult to write about. All too often the prose turns to gushing about the wonder and charm of it all. The best travel writing takes a picture of a place with a longer lens. Get up too close to a paradise and you can't see it clearly.
If you have to choose between these two books, ``A Window on Provence'' and ``A Year in Provence,'' take the year over the window. And then supplement it with a good, informational and interesting guidebook like Michael Jacob's ``Provence.''
Bo Niles's book consists of her month-long journal of a stay in Provence. As far as I can figure out, she has come to stay in her parent's house in the Vaucluse area of France to figure out her life. These sorts of personal quests do not make good reading unless the writer is remarkable. Niles is not. The book is badly written, the language too cute. Train stations are ``aswarm'' with people, the sun ``nuzzles,'' its rays are ``tawny drizzles of syrup,'' clothes on a clothesline are like ``dancing sprites.'' You get the idea.
She also gets anthropomorphic about many things, including appliances. The stove in her house ``winks,'' the refrigerator is a she and ``stares balefully.'' This is not a house I would be comfortable in, especially at night. You never know what those appliances are going to get in their minds to do.
We learn her mother's nickname, always a warning sign. Too often the descriptions of places are merely strings of adjectives. Mt. Ventoux, a focal point for much of Provence, is called ``emphatic,'' ``implacable,'' ``sinister,'' ``bald-pated,'' and a ``hulk.''
After reading ``A Window,'' you feel as if you have eaten too much French cheese or that you've been forced to read 10 of the kind of Christmas letters well-meaning people send in lieu of cards. There is some good information in the book, like the history of the Provencal fabric industry and a few good legends, but by and large the writing and the self-indulgence are so annoying that it's hard to see the good points.
Interspersed throughout the book are the author's own line drawings. They are on par with the writing.
Peter Mayle spares us his own drawings. A true artist's drawings grace ``A Year in Provence.'' Mayle, who is British, bought an old house in the Luberon Valley, - not far from where Bo Niles spent her month - and he and his wife spent a year restoring it.
The book is divided into month-long chapters. Mayle writes about the horrors of French bureaucracy, tells tales of amusing country contractors and dapper pool designers , musical plumbers, and clever plasterers. You see how he and his wife develop a French-like obsession with food. There's a fascinating discourse on the truffle industry. You learn that hunters used to be allowed to hang caged birds in the trees to lure other birds close enough for a point-blank shot.
Provence proves not to be sunny and hot all year, at least as most people like to imagine it. The mistral, the strong, cold north wind that blows through the region, defies imagination. Its relentlessness may account for the fact that this area of France, the Vaucluse, has the highest suicide rate in all of France.
Mayle complains quite a lot about how friends and acquaintances of friends descend on people with houses in Provence. He may have cooked his own goose. People who read about his pool, and the food, and the weather, and all his charming friends may now come flocking to his door.
Mayle does fall into a version of the paradise trap. He tends to describe the locals as hard-working, unpredictable but honest, cheerful, and hard-drinking, ever colorful folk. The travails of one curmudgeon in particular form a leitmotif throughout the book that eventually gets tiresome. I talked to inhabitants of Provence who had read the book - it was serialized in a British newspaper - and this aspect bothered them the most. They agreed that ``A Year in Provence'' was a good read, even informative, but that the depictions of the people who live there were simplistic and exaggerated. They felt that Mayle wrote about a Provence that the English like to imagine, not the real Provence that they live in.
If you don't take ``A Year in Provence'' as a realistic picture of one of the most interesting and beautiful areas of France, you will have fun reading it.