Sunday, July 16, 2006

Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith

This sequel to 44 Scotland Street feels like the way my summer has been - a series of reunions with old friends. In Espresso Tales, I get to catch up with people I haven't "seen" for a long time, and find the answers to some questions I've longed to know the answer to. For instance: will the narcissistic Bruce ever get his come-uppance? Will Pat find true love? Will Matthew, the aimless art gallery owner, discover his calling? And what of Bertie, the exceptionally gifted five-year-old - will his mother abandon her project to raise him as an ungendered, bilingual saxophonist who does yoga in his spare time?

It's funny that a book so episodic in nature (each chapter is published separately in The Scotsman newspaper) should be so riveting, but Alexander McCall Smith has a way of creating characters who have an appealing authenticity (even the most ridiculous among them, like Ramsey Dunbarton, the writer of hilariously dull memoirs). Their foibles are sketched out in a gentle, teasing manner. While the novel as a whole skips from one story line to another, it doesn't feel disconnected, because the setting of Edinburgh geography and culture helps to tie everything together.

Reading this book gives me a sense of the personality behind the writing, but McCall Smith is never intrusive and doesn't feel the need to hit you over the head with his observations about human nature. This is why I enjoy his novels so much; he's not above philosophizing, but he never takes himself or his characters too seriously.

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