Of his sophomore effort, A Day in Tuscany: More Confessions of a Chianti Tour Guide, author Dario Castagno admits, “I was rather amazed that I wrote it in just a few months.” Actually, the book’s loose structure and folksy sensibility give that away in a matter of pages. The fact that Castagno begins the book surmising that not only is he not a writer, but he didn’t even finish school, makes it a little hard to stomach the fact that he’s now three books (Too Much Tuscan Wine is due for completion this year) into a literary career. Then again, it’s impossible to hate Castagno, a tour guide and collector of local lore in Italy’s Tuscany region.
“During my book tour, many people asked if I was working on a sequel, at the time I wasn’t but when I returned to my beloved Chianti hills an incredible series of events occurred in a day. So many as a matter of fact that all I had to do was to have the patience to write them down and in no time A Day in Tuscany was conceived.” You kind of have to hand it to the guy: He fell into a story and had the good sense to write it down.
And indeed, Tuscany is a nice read. I haven’t been to Tuscany but would love to. The next best thing (especially on a blustery winter day) is to read about some place sunny, distant, and swimming in good wine. And there have been plenty of great travel-memoir books based in Tuscany, such as Marlena De Blasi’s A Thousand Days in Tuscany and Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes (now a movie).
Now, Castagno’s book doesn’t really compare to either of these sweeping (and at time, heart-wrenching) volumes, and Tuscany‘s weakness is that it’s told as a series of vignettes, each chapter dedicated to a single character, with no story continuing past a handful of pages. There’s a sense of the landscape (“Chianti is mostly lovely rolling woodland that begins just south of Florence and extends all the way to Siena”), of the food, of the village life and changing times, but the reader isn’t allowed the time to bask in any of these elements.
The book is organized into seemingly arbitrary hours in the day. 9:49 a.m.; 2:31 p.m. It’s a clever idea (these stops on the clock represent the time at which the author had some experience which triggered a memory leading to a story from his past) that falls short. The problem is, the stories, which make up the bulk of the chapters, don’t relate to 9:49 a.m. or 2:31 p.m. Nor are the stories in any sort of chronological order, or organized by seasons, so there’s a sense of bouncing through the decades with random stops for a new time to be read off a pointless wristwatch.
“I remain in contemplation for awhile, perched on the highest branch of the tree. I, too, feel eternity ebb around me as I face my old house, which represents the past, stirring more memories …” Castagno recites at the opening of one tale. This is how he leads the reader from his present-day musings to his tales of child and young adulthood. There’s a sweetness in the author’s telling, and his sensitivity and poetic leanings are apparent, but still the stories fall just short of revelatory.
“‘Urka, Dario, you know at my age I’ve learned ugly women don’t exist, its all a matter of the wine you drink!’” Says one character. There are these golden moments of a good anecdote, and Castagno’s cast of acquaintances — living and dead — are all deserving of entire books of their own. Strangely, the one character woven throughout the text, Castagno’s ex-girlfriend (wife, maybe?) Cristina, is never fleshed out. We’re told that he misses her, that she’s left and he doesn’t know why, and that, were she there, he’d be telling these stories to her. And really, that’s how this book comes across. As the sweet, end-of-day musings one lover might murmur to another. Pillow talk between two kindred souls who know each other’s back-stories and can jump into an anecdote without much lead-in. Personally, I was all-consumed with figuring out what happened to the wayward Cristina. I read ahead. I searched his website. I did a Google search. I came up empty handed.
Still, Tuscany offers beauty and amusement and is a quick read, and the author is a wholly likable character who, no doubt, attracts an ever-increasing tourist cliental based on his friendly forays into the literary world.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter
Dario Castagno reads from A Day in Tuscany at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Jan. 19. The 12 p.m. event is free. Info: 254-6734.