Peter Mayle Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.