October 08, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Seven years ago, British writer and former advertising exec Peter Mayle went on vacation and never came home. He and his wife, Jennie, bought a farmhouse in the vineyards of Provence, France, and Mayle kept a journal of redoing their old stone kitchen, eating sumptuous meals of truffles, riding bicycles up mountains. He called it A Year in Provence, and his London publisher printed only 3,000 copies, expecting the book to intrigue a few Francophiles.

Mais non! The book made the best-seller lists in England. A year later it crossed the Atlantic, where the paperback has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 103 weeks. And the follow-up, Toujours Provence, has ridden the list for 33 weeks.

Now Mayle has set a fictional romp in his corner of the world, Hotel Pastis: A Novel of Provence (Knopf, $23). The book comes on the heels of a BBC series (seen in the U.S. earlier this year) that prompted the British press to stir up dusty rumors that Mayle has been a one-man environmental disaster, luring hordes of tourists to trample the rosemary hedges.

Mayle begs to differ. True, there are the occasional visitors who flatter him by finding his driveway and braving his dogs to get his autograph. And the local restaurateurs do crow about new customers clutching well-read Mayle paperbacks. ”But the Parisians found out about this 20 years before I did,” Mayle says, referring to his neighborhood. ”The politicians and the movie people can jump on the train and four hours later be here in the sun. So it’s hardly been a well-kept secret that I’ve blown.”

Besides, A Year in Provence‘s magnetism wasn’t premeditated. ”The book was planned as a labor of love, not a labor of commerce,” he says. ”I only wanted a little book that I could send to my friends as Christmas presents.”

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