Peter Mayle Essay - Critical Essays

Mayle, Peter

Introduction

Peter Mayle 1939(?)–

English nonfiction writer, memoirist, and novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Mayle's career through 1995.

Mayle is best known for his humorous nonfiction, particularly the books detailing his experiences in France, A Year in Provence (1989) and Toujours Provence (1991). Mayle has also written a number of lighthearted advice books for children and adults, a novel, and a nonfiction account of the advertising world.

Biographical Information

Born in Surrey, England, Mayle was educated in the West Indies, where his father served in the British foreign affairs office. As a trainee at the Shell Oil company, Mayle became interested in advertising. He worked under the tutelage of advertising tycoon David Ogilvy and eventually moved to New York City. During his fifteen-year career in advertising, Mayle advanced from copywriter to executive. In 1973 he published his first book, Where Did I Come From?—a jovial explanation of the facts of life—in response to one of his sons' queries; the book's publication contributed to Mayle's decision two years later to leave advertising to pursue a full-time writing career. A number of similar nonfiction books followed, but Mayle did not achieve substantial success until he moved into an old farmhouse in Provence, a region in the south of France. Intending to write a novel there, Mayle found himself stymied by the workers who were renovating the house. His British agent suggested postponing the novel in favor of an account of his experiences. The result was A Year in Provence, which sold unexpectedly well and won a British Book Award for best travel book in 1989. Mayle's further adventures in France, including coping with the fans who started coming to his house, provided material for subsequent works, including Toujours Provence, the novel Hotel Pastis (1993), and the fictional memoir A Dog's Life (1995). In 1995, Mayle decided to sell his Provençal farmhouse and move to the United States to seek a more private life.

Major Works

Mayle's nonfiction for young people—including Where Did I Come From?—is known for its humorous and forthright approach to such sometimes-controversial subjects as sex, death, divorce, and birth control. Mayle also employed a lighthearted tone in his handbooks for adults, beginning with How to Be a Pregnant Father (1977), and moved into more risqué territory with a series of books about "Wicked Willie," a cartoon character in the form of an erect penis. His essays written in the 1980s for GQ magazine, later collected in Expensive Habits (1991), concern the habits of the wealthy and such extravagances as limousines and custom-made shirts and shoes. A number of Mayle's works draw heavily on his own experiences. A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence, for instance, describe the renovation of his Provençal home, French food, and rural life in southern France. Autobiographical details are likewise employed in Hotel Pastis, a novel about a former advertising executive who attempts to convert an abandoned gendarmerie in Provence into a fashionable hotel, A Dog's Life, a fictional memoir concerning Mayle's dog, Boy; and Up the Agency (1993), an account of modern advertising.

Critical Reception

Mayle received considerable critical attention for A Year in Provence, earning praise for his keen observations, accurate portrayal of rural life, and entertaining prose style. Some commentators have complained, however, that his depictions of Provence's rural populace are exaggerated and simplistic—even patronizing—and that his tone is smug. As he published more books featuring Provence, reviewers were divided over whether these represented a welcome return to familiar territory or tiresome rehashes. This diversity of opinion extends to Mayle's other works. His children's books, despite some success, have similarly been faulted by critics who argue that Mayle fails to deal with moral issues, creates misconceptions, and employs an overly breezy tone. Reviewers have tended to agree, however, that Mayle has mastered a light, accessible style and writes engagingly about his subjects.

Principal Works

Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life without Any Nonsense and with Illustrations (nonfiction) 1973
"Will I Go to Heaven?" (nonfiction) 1976
How to Be a Pregnant Father: An Illustrated Survival Guide for the First-Time Father (nonfiction) 1977
Divorce Can Happen to the Nicest People (nonfiction) 1979; revised edition published as Why Are We Getting a Divorce?, 1988
We're Not Pregnant: An Illustrated Guide to Birth Control (nonfiction) 1981; also published as Congratulations! You're Not Pregnant: An Illustrated Guide to Birth Control, 1981
Grown-ups and Other Problems: Help for Small People in a Big World (nonfiction) 1982
Man's Best Friend: Introducing Wicked Willie in the Title Role (prose) 1984
Sweet Dreams and Monsters: A Beginner's Guide to Dreams and Nightmares and Things That Go Bump under the Bed (nonfiction) 1986
A Year in Provence (memoirs) 1989
Expensive Habits (essays) 1991; also published as Acquired Tastes: A Beginner's Guide to Serious Pleasures, 1992
Toujours Provence (memoirs) 1991
Hotel Pastis: A Novel of Provence (novel) 1993
Up the Agency: The Funny Business of Advertising (nonfiction) 1993
A Dog's Life (fictional memoir) 1995

Criticism

Mary Breasted (review date 23 September 1973)

SOURCE: "Nothing but the Facts—of Life," in The New York Times Book Review, September 23, 1973, p. 8.

[In the following excerpt, Breasted offers a largely negative assessment of Where Did I Come From?]

[Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life without Any Nonsense and with Illustrations] is, as a matter of fact, sprinkled with giggly phrases and sentences and illustrated by such risible pictures that, all told, one has to say it did not leave out the nonsense. It does explain both anatomy and sexual intercourse more expansively [than other such books for children]. But it is filled with little parenthetical asides that seem to destroy the whole point of the book, the explanation of sex and reproduction without awkwardness or embarrassment. When explaining anatomy, the book tells us our parents "are not made at all the same way. You've probably noticed that already, but you notice it much more when you put them in the bath together," instead of just saying: You can see the difference when they are naked.

In explaining the function of women's breasts, the book says: "Well, the milk that kept you alive for those first few months either came from a bottle or your mother's breasts. So it's a quick thank you to breasts before we move on."

And feminists may not like this book …, because when it finally reaches the explanation of intercourse, it tells us, "The man wants to get as close to the woman as he can, because he's feeling very loving to her." There's no mention of how she's feeling toward him.

But this book [does attempt] to explain orgasm, and women are not left out of the passage where the attempt is made. The sensation is described as "a tremendous big lovely shiver for both of them," both the man and the woman.

Somewhat ludicrous, however, is the picture opposite this page of text (which also compares orgasm to a sneeze), showing an infant sneezing and captioned: "It's a lovely feeling."

[This book] will probably get across so many small misconceptions to literally minded children that parents who buy [it] will end up having to answer questions or correct misunderstandings.

Chad Walsh (review date 10 October 1976)

SOURCE: A review of "Will I Go to Heaven?" in The New York Times Book Review, October 10, 1976, p. 31.

[Walsh was an American writer, educator, and Episcopal priest. In the following review, he acknowledges the difficulty in writing about heaven and hell but concludes that however brave the attempt, Mayle's effort in "Will I Go to Heaven?" falls short.]

Peter Mayle is well known as the author of two successful books—Where Did I Come From? and What's Happening to Me? He now moves to explore the reputed life beyond death [in "Will I Go to Heaven?"], and with mixed results.

He begins well enough, with a sensible...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Peggy Heeks (review date 18 September 1981)

SOURCE: "Sex in Comic Cuts," in The Times Educational Supplement, No. 3404, September 18, 1981, p. 27.

[In the review below, Heeks notes Mayle's nonmoral stance and light approach to sexuality in We're Not Pregnant.]

Penis size may not matter, as Peter Mayle assures us [in We're Not Pregnant], but book size does, as reading surveys show, and one foot square isn't the most convenient size for a handbook on birth control. It was presumably chosen to match Peter Mayle's other light-hearted treatments of sexual matters, Where did I come from? and What's happening to me? both directed to younger age groups. Now, "moving up the age ladder", as the...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Mary Warnock (review date 17 September 1982)

SOURCE: "Handing out Good Advice," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4146, September 17, 1982, p. 1005.

[In the following excerpt, Warnock, an English educator and author of works on philosophy, ethics, imagination, and education, faults Grown-ups and Other Problems for presenting an essentially adult perspective while ostensibly being for children.]

[H]ow does one publish a book of advice? How can advice be made to do for everyone? In questions of personal relationships, unlike, say gardening or cooking, the advice may seem never to be quite or even nearly applicable to the individual. On such questions, advice must come to people one by one, after the...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

Hiram Winterbotham (review date 4-10 August 1989)

SOURCE: "Lure of the Lubéron," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4505, August 4-10, 1989, p. 844.

[In the following review, Winterbotham commends A Year in Provence for its informative and humorous portrait of rural France.]

Peter Mayle recently emigrated to the South of France, where he has bought and modernized a house close to the village of Ménerbes in the Lubéron. A Year in Provence is his account of a settler's experiences, beginning with his arrival in January and ending with a party for the builders to celebrate the house's completion the following Christmas. For the main narrative his book depends on such events as the installation of...

(The entire section is 350 words.)

Betty Fussell (review date 13 May 1990)

SOURCE: "'A Dieter's Vision of Hell,'" in The New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1990, p. 8.

[Fussell is an American educator whose writing interests include travel and cooking. In the review below, she finds A Year in Provence an entertaining look at the food and people of Provence.]

I like a book that begins, "The year began with lunch," particularly when the book [A Year in Provence], year and lunch are set in Provence. And I like a lunch that begins with pastis and ends with marc, that heartwarming, heartburning firewater the French learned long ago was man's best chance of surviving the catastrophes endemic to Provence. Or so the Mayles—Peter, his...

(The entire section is 1220 words.)

Carin Pratt (review date 31 July 1990)

SOURCE: "Ah, Provence!," in The Christian Science Monitor, July 31, 1990, p. 13.

[In the following excerpt, Pratt describes A Year in Provence as interesting and informative, but not necessarily realistic.]

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….

Mayle, who is British, bought an old house in the Luberon Valley,… and he and his wife spent a year...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Adam Thorpe (review date 26 April 1991)

SOURCE: "All That Sunshine," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4595, April 26, 1991, p. 21.

[Thorpe is an educator, Whitbread Prize-winning poet, playwright, and short story writer who was born in Paris. Below, he offers a negative review of Toujours Provence.]

These anecdotes [in Toujours Provence] from Peter Mayle's bucolic exile purport to continue where A Year in Provence left off. A former advertising copywriter, Mayle has a sure eye for the marketable product. Title is all-important: Caesar's Vast Ghost might do for Lawrence Durrell, but not for the sales pitch. Brits salivate at the thought of doing up a property. Add hedonism, sunlight,...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Teresa Waugh (review date 4 May 1991)

SOURCE: "Time for the Return of the Native," in The Spectator, Vol. 266, No. 8495, May 4, 1991, pp. 32-3.

[Below, Waugh faults Toujours Provence as patronizing and labored.]

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, where do I begin? For I too have lived in France and come away from it with a view as different from Peter Mayle's as chalk is from cheese. Or, as he might say, as over-ripe camembert is from processed Edam, for his humour is nothing if not laboured. Listen to this [from Toujours Provence]:

… a large Alsatian appeared from the shadows and inspected my leg thoughtfully. I hoped he'd been fed.

...

(The entire section is 895 words.)

Frank J. Prial (review date 9 June 1991)

SOURCE: "A Little Truck Stop in the South of France," in The New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1991, p. 9.

[Prial is a journalist and wine columnist for The New York Times. In the review that follows, he praises Toujours Provence as an episodic collection of finely crafted essays.]

The Economist, which is never shy about these things, has nominated Peter Mayle for the Légion d'Honneur, for his efforts to repopulate rural France. Mr. Mayle is the author of last year's widely acclaimed memoir, A Year in Provence, and its sequel, just out, Toujours Provence.

Mr. Mayle may be made a legionnaire or he may not; it's not...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

E. S. Turner (review date 6 December 1991)

SOURCE: A review of Expensive Habits, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4627, December 6, 1991, p. 28.

[An English novelist and journalist who worked for English and Scottish newspapers for nearly thirty years, Turner is noted for his humorous studies of British social history. Below, he provides a negative review of Expensive Habits.]

The second Duke of Westminster ("Bendor") once summoned his yacht from Scandinavian waters to the Mediterranean to ferry his guests from Cannes to a tennis tournament at Monte Carlo, then instructed the skipper to sail for Sutherland and await orders. The tale comes to mind on reading Peter Mayle's account [in Expensive...

(The entire section is 385 words.)

Douglas Johnson (review date 13 February 1992)

SOURCE: "He Knows a Little Place," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 3, February 13, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following unfavorable review, Johnson judges Expensive Habits vulgar and notes similarities between it and Mayle's books about Provence.]

The contents of this vulgar and irritating book [Expensive Habits]—can the author have deliberately set out to be irritating?—are totally predictable. It is, however, unexpected that we have to wait until page 166 before encountering a familiar example of what some consider to be admirable behaviour. A man leaves a restaurant, naturally a grand and expensive establishment, after paying his bill. The...

(The entire section is 2406 words.)

William Grimes (review date 31 May 1992)

SOURCE: "How Pleasant It Is to Have Money," in The New York Times Book Review, May 31, 1992, p. 37.

[In the following review, Grimes acknowledges Mayle's wit and ability to entertain but asserts that some of his pieces in Acquired Tastes, originally published in England as Expensive Habits, seem strained.]

Back in the high-flying 1980's, GQ magazine handed Peter Mayle a dream assignment: "Go forth and mingle with the wealthy. Do as they do, providing you obtain clearance from the Accounts Department first, and report back." Mr. Mayle, the author of A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence, needed no further prodding, as [Acquired...

(The entire section is 358 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement (review date 18 June 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Hotel Pastis, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4707, June 18, 1993, p. 24.

[Below is a negative review of Hotel Pastis.]

Peter Mayle is the man who turned his back on Madison Avenue in the mid-1970s and settled in the Lubéron. He locked horns with recalcitrant native stonemasons, electricians and plasterers, and wrote two books based on his experiences, A year in Provence and Toujours Provence, popular derivatives of the Lady Fortescue school of dispatches from the Provençal front. So, few marks for originality there.

And not many for Hotel Pastis either. The principal story, such as it is,...

(The entire section is 328 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 August 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Up the Agency: The Funny Business of Advertising, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXI, No. 15, August 1, 1993, p. 984.

[In the following excerpt, the critic describes Up the Agency as an amusing look at the advertising business.]

Generalities about advertising by the tireless Mayle [appear in Up the Agency: The Funny Business of Advertising]….

Rather than offer a riotous nailing-down of idiocies in advertising, Mayle depends more upon dry wit rather than detail here and sends up the mast only nameless ad companies and misadventures with flopped accounts so that all may salute their stupidity. We get a series of...

(The entire section is 324 words.)

Michele Field (essay date 11 October 1993)

SOURCE: "Peter Mayle," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 41, October 11, 1993, pp. 65-6.

[In the essay below, based on an interview with Mayle, Field discusses the author's life and writings.]

Peter Mayle looks like Robert Redford—the same boyish face with a geography of lines; the same wire spectacles framing flinty eyes; the wispy blond hair and patient smile. He attributes the abuse he sometimes receives in the British press to envy—"most journalists have some ambition to be writers, and if they see some idiot like me who stumbles over to France and writes a bestseller, they say 'I could have done that book.'" But some of the envy must also arise...

(The entire section is 2230 words.)

Eric Kraft (review date 17 October 1993)

SOURCE: "The Souse of France," in The New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1993, p. 11.

[Kraft is an American editor and novelist. Below, he provides a favorable review of Hotel Pastis.]

Here [in Hotel Pastis] we have the story of a man who abandons dreary London for sunny Provence. Peter Mayle has told a similar story before, of course, but this time out he's written a novel, not a memoir like Toujours Provence or A Year in Provence, so the protagonist of Hotel Pastis is not Peter Mayle but Simon Shaw, a prosperous advertising executive. In the aftermath of his second divorce, Simon is a man suffering from "too many lunches, too many...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 13 February 1995)

SOURCE: A review of A Dog's Life, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 7, February 13, 1995, pp. 63-4.

[Below is a positive review of A Dog's Life.]

Both canine "memoir" and cautionary tale, this sprightly account [A Dog's Life] of the further adventures of Boy, Mayle's real-life dog introduced in Toujours Provence, is a gem of its kind. As animated by Mayle, Boy is a clever chap given to literary allusions, urbane observations and stinging bon mots. With many an arch and insightful comment, Boy celebrates his life after he escapes from his first owner, a brutish farmer, and is adopted by a kindly woman (thereafter called madame) and her "other...

(The entire section is 270 words.)

Bruce McCall (review date 9 April 1995)

SOURCE: "Good Dog! Bad Dog!," in The New York Times Book Review, April 9, 1995, p. 11.

[In the following excerpt, McCall offers a mixed assessment of A Dog's Life.]

The One Hundred Cruelest Pet Stories probably won't be showing up at fine booksellers anytime soon. Writers who choose to treat with the world of cats and dogs must tread lightly; pet love tolerates if not lives off the occasional tear in the eye and lump in the throat, and the tender sensibilities at the heart of the man-animal bond must be respected. Indeed, they're usually pandered to. Even adult-level pet writing commonly wallows in a kind of Disney-ish pastel zone more bluntly described as icky....

(The entire section is 355 words.)