44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

Jun 29, 2013

A couple of months ago when it was Mike's birthday, I was trying to think of something to do that would be both fun and, more importantly, free. I happened to see that Alexander McCall Smith would be speaking at the Main Salt Lake City Library courtesy of The King's English. A few years ago, Mike and I both read and enjoyed The No. 1  Ladies' Detective Agency, and since the event was not only on the evening of Mike's birthday but also fit my two predetermined requirements, it seemed almost providential that we attend (although some might argue that hearing an author speak was more of a birthday present to myself).

Mike's sister and her husband also joined us. (Sonja is an avid fan of Alexander McCall Smith and has read all of the books in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.) Alexander McCall Smith was an absolute treat. In his authentic kilt and even more authentic Scottish brogue, he kept us all laughing the entire time.

Two things especially impressed me: first, the sheer amount that he's able to write (he generally publishes 2-4 books a year; he said that he writes 1000 words in an hour and does very little rewriting after the fact), and second, how much he loves his characters (he talked about them like they were real people--chuckling about their ridiculous antics and quirky personalities). He was supposed to sign his new book afterwards, but in spite of the bookstore staff trying their hardest to get him to wrap up, he just couldn't stop talking. We didn't stay for the signing, but I'm sure it was a rush to get everyone through before the library closed.

Anyway, one of the characters he mentioned several times during the course of the evening was Bertie, a little five-year-old boy with an overbearing mother, who resides in the 44 Scotland Street series. I was so enchanted by his descriptions of Bertie that I knew I needed to get the first book in the series.

In the introduction to the book, Alexander McCall Smith wrote, "It is in observing the minor ways of people that one can still see very clearly the moral dilemmas of our time." For me, that statement really summarizes what 44 Scotland Street is all about:

There's Pat, a young woman who is taking her second "gap year" because she's can't seem to get a handle on adulthood; Bruce, who lives in the same flat as Pat and has an extreme talent for conceitedness and self-admiration; Dominica, an older woman in the same building who seems to know everything about everyone but is unassuming and kind; Bertie, a five-year-old saxophone prodigy, and his overbearing and helicopter mother, Irene; Matthew, manager of an obscure and (unfortunately) unsuccessful art gallery; Big Lou, an avid reader and owner of a coffee shop; Angus Lordie, a portrait painter with a dog that has a gold tooth; as well as Lizzie Todd and her parents, Matthew's friends, Ramsey Dunbarton, and Dr. Fairbairn.

Each of these characters interact and associate with each other on some level, and each one has their own little story and predicament that finally gets resolved in the end. The main story involves a painting that is discovered by Pat and Matthew in the gallery which they hope is by the famous Peploe. But really, more than anything, the book is just about the characters themselves and, as Alexander McCall Smith put it, "observing the minor ways of people."

One of the really interesting things about this book, as well as the entire series, is that it was published first as a serial novel. It ran in The Scotsman in Edinburgh (where the novel actually takes place). There are more than 100 chapters in the book, so at a chapter every weekday, it took about six months to complete.

Knowing that it ran as a serial novel first made the book even more enjoyable for me. There were many times when a chapter would end, and I would think, And now, you have to wait until tomorrow to find out what happens next! I can only imagine how much more fun it would have been to be living in Edinburgh, reading about Edinburgh, every day. During his lecture, Alexander McCall Smith mentioned the unique challenges that come with writing a book this way. For example, he said there were times when he was only three days ahead of the printing, so he really didn't have time to go back and change anything, and there were times when he actually forgot about details that he had to then quickly wrap up at the end with very little explanation.

I enjoy Alexander McCall Smith's sense of humor. It's a little bit dry, very witty, and sometimes just flat-out funny. I'm sure I missed some of the more subtle jokes and jabs, but even if some of it did go over my head, there was plenty more that was delightfully obvious. For example, since Pat and Matthew didn't know if the painting I referenced earlier was really done by Peploe or just some other obscure, no-name artist, they decided to call it the "Peploe?" with a question mark. Anytime they referred to it, it was as the Peploe?, and it made me smile every time.

As funny and witty as I found the story however, it was not without its dry and boring moments. There were some chapters where characters waxed eloquent on politics or psychoanalysis, and they just seemed to go on forever. Maybe the politics would have interested me more if I actually lived in Scotland, but then, since I have almost no interest in politics here in the U.S., probably not. As much fun as it would have been to read this as a serial novel, I also think that I might have lost interest and just decided to give up on the story in some of the places where these types of conversations went on for several chapters in a row.

I listened to the audio, which was narrated by Robert Ian MacKenzie. Mike also listened and really liked the narrator. I . . . did not. I thought his female voices were a bit hideous, and even his male voices often went into this falsetto register that I found annoying. Also, many of the characters sounded exactly the same, and since most of them were high and unnatural, it just wasn't the most pleasant listening experience. That said, it wasn't annoying enough that I gave up listening to it. And Mike said he liked MacKenzie's accent (I was too distracted by the high voices to even notice the accent).

There are now eight books in this series with the ninth one being published this year. I believe all of them have been printed as serial novels first. I felt like there were definitely some loose ends in this story that didn't quite wrap up (there was even one character who seemed to just be abandoned part-way through), so I can definitely see how the story could continue. However, even though I enjoyed the characters and the humor, and even though there were some story lines left hanging, I can't say I'm jumping to read the second book. I might pick it up someday, but then again, I might not.

2 comments:

  1. I was going to pick this one for my bookclub but read a sample of it on my Nook and decided against it. After reading your commentary, I'm glad I switched to When You Reach Me.

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  2. I really love McCall Smith (his new stand-alone book Trains and Lovers is fantastic!) but haven't read this series. Thanks for reviewing it!

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