Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia
by Chris Stewart
Published by Pantheon
248 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Aaron Blanton
It could all have so easily gone another way. When he was a talented teenager and rock music was young, Chris Stewart was the drummer for Genesis. And then he wasn't. And no one really even wondered very much, right? Hardly anyone ever said, "Whatever happened to that first Genesis drummer, whatiszname?" Did they? And if they did, they would have had a hard time getting an answer. Because ol' whatsizname did the unthinkable: He gave up the rock dream -- without, it seems, a backwards glance -- to follow his heart and write. And not just write from the comfort of some well-stuffed London garret. Stewart took to the road and the pen, taking odd and interesting jobs as he traveled the world and even managed to write about some of it.
None of this is what Driving Over Lemons, is about. There is no touch of Genesis in these well-wrought pages. No noise, in fact, from city streets or the electronic age. In fact, Driving Over Lemons is more reminiscent of something Frances Mayes might write about her beloved Tuscany. If she were roughing it. If she had found herself in Spain instead of Italy. And, perhaps most importantly, if she had faced the same physical challenges of making it all work that Stewart has faced.
The challenges have been legion. Stewart unknowingly paid five times more for El Valero, the run down farm he bought in Andalucia, than it was worth. There was no road access, no potable -- or even running -- water, no dependable electricity: and these were just the things he noted prior to the purchase. But it was beautiful and "In a matter of minutes," Stewart writes, "I was transformed from an itinerant sheep-shearer and tenant of a tied cottage beneath an airport landing path in Sussex, into the owner of a mountain farm in Andalucia. This would take some getting used to."
Before he can get used to it, however, Stewart has to inform his wife Ana back in England that he has just blown their savings and predetermined their future.
How exactly was I going to explain to her what I had just done? I shuffled the coins about on the table and looked for inspiration at the dregs in my wineglass. Strictly speaking, my brief had been to check out certain places in Andalucia and look at the possibility of buying a house and plot of land where together we could carve out a future. I couldn't help but feel that I had somewhat overstepped the mark. There comes a tide in the affairs of men, of course... but would Ana see it in quite that light?
Ana turns out to be singularly understanding and there is never a question of Stewart's head ending up on a plate. As he quickly discovers, Ana's cooperation is the least of Stewart's worries: there's just so much else yet to go wrong.
The reason Driving Over Lemons works so well is due entirely to Stewart's strong sense of humor as well as his eye for detail and way with telling a story. You don't find yourself so much envying Chris and Ana their adventure, as much as wondering how on earth they got through it all and thinking that El Valero would be a fun place to visit -- and Stewart no doubt an excellent host -- but to live there? Maybe not.
While Driving Over Lemons seems like a complete chapter in Chris and Ana's life -- the basics are taken care of, a finished picture begins to rise from the rubble, animals come and go and their daughter Chlöe is born and begins school -- it is by no means a story with an ending. It seems likely that this particular Optimist in Andalucia will send us another chapter in this ongoing story before very long. | June 2000
Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living in Scotland.