Pat, a student in her "second gap year", has just moved into a flat just across the hall from Bruce, who's God's gift to women, and knows it. Living in neighbouring flats are five-year-old Bertie and his family, and Domenica, a widow with a colourful past. These are the inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street, and the book follows events in their lives, and those of their friends and workmates, as they interact with each other and the citizens of Edinburgh.
I began this book with some degree of trepidation, having been a bit disappointed by The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, which I read some time ago. But what an absolute treat this was.
It reminded me quite a bit of Maeve Binchy - specifically Evening Class - both in structure and style: the narrative switches between the stories of each of the protagonists, and every time it does, you think "oh, that's a shame, I really like that character". But then the next one turns out to be just as good. And style: there is the same degree of kindness and warmth in the writing: as with MB, I read much of this with a smile on my face. Actually I find it hard to believe this was written by a man, although I suppose the fact that the audiobook reader was a woman encouraged the impression that the author was female.
Rather irritatingly, there were many characters in the book, aside from the inhabitants of Scotland Street, who were really well described: in fact, pretty much everyone who made an appearance felt like someone you'd like to hear more about. I guess this has taken quite a bit of effort, but it didn't read that way. I understand that the story was originally published in daily installments in a newspaper: the chapters are very short, but I think the exercise works well, since you get the feeling that he's tried to make each chapter count.
McCall Smith is (I find, having done some research) a bit of a polymath, and that shows through in the writing, which is quite erudite without seeming to be didactic. There was a fair amount of philosophy in the book (I notice he's done another series about a philosophy club): when he covered ground I was familiar with it didn't seem boring, and he also introduced me to a couple of concepts that I ought to have been familiar with - specifically Akrasia - that I've been musing on ever since reading about it. There is also some psychology in the book: Bertie is taken to a psychotherapist, who wonders whether he might be able to replicate Freud's success with "Little Hans", and the descriptions here are all very good.
But while this added to the enjoyment of the book, its main delight was its sheer readabilty, and the way that the characters were rendered so plausibly and with so much sympathy. One incident between Pat and her employer is described:
For a few moments, neither spoke, as each felt sympathy for the other; as the same conclusion - quite remarkably - occurred to each. Here is a person: another, who is so important to himself (to herself), and so weak, and ordinary, and human - as we all are.
I think that sentiment is one of the themes of the book: that everyone has a story and, to himself/herself, it seems the most important one in the world. And while we're reading about Pat, or Bertie, or even Bruce, we are given an insight into why that story is so important.
The stories of hopeless love were especially moving: both Pat and Big Lou find themselves in the position of wanting someone who simply doesn't want them, and this was done very convincingly.
Fortunately, there are more books in this series, so I'll definitely be reading them. And also the philosophy club ones are going to be worth a go. And I might even try the Ladies' Detective ones again.
Completed : 04-Sep-2008 (audiobook)