BOOK REVIEW / Pergolas and tea gowns: A valley in Italy - Lisa St Aubin de Teran: Hamish Hamilton pounds 15.99

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The Independent Culture
CAN THE unquenchable British passion for homes and gardens accommodate another of these we-converted-a- ruin-in-Tuscany odysseys? It seems impossible for them not to radiate a certain self-congratulatory air: the house is always a unique gem, the relationship with the locals invariably deep and rewarding. Phrases such as 'my ruined loggia' or 'our own unsung little bit of Umbria' don't help to single this one out. Inconsequential ramblings about what to do with the garden or the ballroom crop up like perennials - what other people mull over in potting sheds or write on shopping lists, these authors turn into narrative.

Lisa St Aubin de Teran's book is like her Umbrian villa - inlaid with decorative marble in some parts, neglected and chaotic in others. Unpruned romantic descriptions spread like dense vegetation, suffocating her prose: 'tall brick pillars crested with terracotta, laced with a trellis of wisteria.' Yet isolated images can gleam beneath the undergrowth: 'It was standing like a jilted beauty still dressed in its ancient best.'

However, Italy has gone to her head, and as she herself admits, she was 'overwhelmed' by the wealth of material around her. This book has only the very loosest of forms, a random rural diary meandering between rapturous landscapes, local mores, comic cameos and personal reminiscence. You may well like this undemanding stuff for a gentle read in a hammock somewhere. But one can't be lulled by idle observations on the Italian way of life which slip out occasionally: 'The shops, bars and restaurants were mostly open, the people were not.' The author is capable of much better than this.

The book's inhabitants tend to have titles instead of names, the Irish Beauties, the child Iseult, the Maestro - a Mitfordesque habit which hovers between the amusing and the mildly irritating. The theme of eccentric, aristocratic families surely belongs to a previous era, one in which, furthermore, the seam was thoroughly over-worked. Yet here we have to witness the husband putting on full Highland regalia to inspect the building work, or the daughter dressing in a 'tea gown' first thing in the morning to meet the workmen.

All the colour generally provided by the locals in such accounts is here appropriated by the author's own household, while the Italians themselves are progressive pragmatists, none of whom would dream of living without a dishwasher. Nevertheless, de Teran cannot resist glamourising them with stock Italian references - her builder is Leonardo's Renaissance man, the blacksmith's son a Piero della Francesca portrait.

Yet somehow you are drawn in by the ultimately optimistic atmosphere, as Italy works its old magic despite all the cliches. The family is redeemed by a self- deprecating air of heroic failure, for having bought quite such an impossible house, where dreams of lying beneath wisteria-covered pergolas are shattered by a frenzied building site of cement mixers, pneumatic drills and tile cutters. Even the fascinatingly awful manifestations of their crowded menagerie keep you turning the pages - after all, as Hello magazine shows, there is little so absorbing as the interiors of other people's houses.