To read and enjoy one of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street novels, one must be in a certain frame of mind. It’s not exactly the same mind set that’s required for the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books by the same author. Those books are a little more linear and plot driven, although like the 44 Scotland Street novels, the plot in all of McCall Smith’s books does tend to meander a bit. The appropriate mood isn’t a Wodehousian mood either, even though McCall Smith shares some of P.G. Wodehouse’s sense of humor and appreciation for the quirks of human behavior.
McCall Smith’s books are all about the characters —and the homespun philosophical rabbit trails that the characters’ predicaments inspire in the author and in the reader. The inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street (both the novels and the setting) include:
Bertie is a precocious and endearing six year old with an overbearing mother, his own psychiatrist, a wimpy but loving father, and a desire to join the cub scouts in spite of his mother’s disapproval.
Bertie’s schoolmates, Tofu and Olive, add further confusion to his life as Tofu calls Bertie’s mom names while Olive insists on joining the cub scouts along with the boys.
Irene, Bertie’s mother, finds her fulfillment in maternal smothering of her offspring and in her own weekly visit to the psychiatrist.
Matthew, newly married to Elspeth Harmony. Their honeymoon in Australia is much more adventurous, and dangerous, than either of them could have imagined.
Angus Lordie and his dog, Cyril, both thought to be confirmed bachelors until the six puppies show up on the doorstep, soon find themselves contemplating marriage.
Bruce Anderson, “erstwhile surveyor and persistent narcissist,” undergoes a personal reformation when he realizes that moisturizer may not be enough to stave the ravages of age forever.
And Domenica MacDonald tries to catch a thief, but finds herself inadvertently becoming the very thing she abhors.
There are lots of other “characters” —in every sense of the word: Big Lou and her Jacobite boyfriend; Nick the photographer; Lard O’Connor, owner of a very special painting; Uncle Jack, president of the Cat Society of Singapore; and many more. As the reader meets each one, it is advisable to take them on their own terms, smile gently, and allow each person in the saga his or her own foibles and curious eccentricities. That’s the attitude for 44 Scotland Street: playful, amused tolerance and appreciation for the almost unbearable lightness of life.
The Unbearable Lightness of Scones is the fifth book in this particular series, and although it’s not necessary at all to read the books in order or to have read the first four before reading this one, anyone who enjoys The Unbearable Lightness of Scones will want to pick up the others at some point–no hurry, when you’re in the mood.