A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
I read this book after reading Toujours Provence and French Lessons, so I was very familiar with the Mayles living in Provence and many of the characters (their neighbour Faustin, Massot who lives in the middle of the woods, the people who work on their home--Didier, Menicucci, et al) in the book. It was like reading about a family I knew, like reading James Herriot's books.
Provence is brought alive in a warm, intimate manner that makes one envious of the Mayles' good fortune for living there, as well as grateful that Mayle lets us live there vicariously through his words.
Peter Mayle is such a good writer that he can make the reader feel for a character what he himself feels. Take, for instance, Massot--he is not an easy character to like; he is always suspicious of German 'trespassers' and doesn't bother to rein in his vicious dogs even when they are tearing a intruder's tyres to pieces, instead he smiles at them appreciatively. We still like him because he is such a 'character'--up to weird things, full of fanciful tales, blaming the German tourists always--because of Mayle's way of presenting him. It is a very difficult skill for a writer, to be able to present a situation, a place, or people in such precise detail, bringing out the character in each just so.
Mayle's sense of humour is marvellous. Humour is a tricky thing--what is funny for one person is sometimes ludicrous or silly or mean for another. But Mayle's humour works, every time. Each sentence works; the words are chosen carefully to convey exactly what he means in the sparest way. His language is simple and his use of it, excellent.
Make sure to read this book in not-too-quiet places because your reading will be punctuated with chuckles or laughing out loud. Oh, and also try and read it only on a full stomach, or reading about the gastronomical pleasures of the Provencal life will make you ravenous.