11/10/2013

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (by Alexander McCall Smith)

I really want to like Alexander McCall Smith’s books. Several people whose literary tastes I respect consider his novels wonderful - yet, in the two that I have read so far by this author, I have been unable to feel more than mild amusement combined - usually - with a slight sense of tedium at the immense amount of minute detail inherent in his writing.

However, I quite liked the friendly and somewhat satirical style, free for the most part from violence or bad language. So when I spotted the novel ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Scones’ going for a euro on a church bookstall, it was not a hard decision to buy it. The title alone was intriguing. It is apparently part of a series about 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh - and, as I gradually realised, it might have been better to have read at least one of the others in the series beforehand.

The book starts with a wedding. A young couple called Matthew and Elspeth tie the knot, despite a few last-minute reservations, and set off on their honeymoon. This takes a few chapters, and gives a nice cameo - with ironic asides, and rather a large number of minor characters - but I was quite enjoying it when suddenly the viewpoint switched to the middle of someone else’s life, after the newly-weds left by plane for Australia. By the time the story has followed them on their honeymoon, I had almost forgotten who they were.

I usually read light fiction for fifteen minutes or so before going to sleep, and unfortunately this is not the ideal kind of book for that treatment. I simply could not keep track of all the people in this book, which felt at times more like a few episodes from a soap rather than a novel. My favourite character was the delightfully precocious six-year-old Bertie who wants nothing more than to join Cub Scouts, while his mother wants him to join only gender-neutral groups and to play with the bossy Olive. I don't recall any of the others particularly. They all seemed so similar.

There’s a thread about a missing blue teacup, another about a valuable long-lost painting, another about someone who breaks up with his girlfriend and is offered a modelling job. And there are many conversations between people who, unfortunately, I found it hard to care about. Or even to distinguish. Perhaps the book is not meant to stand alone - or perhaps the intention is to be snapshots of several people’s lives as they intertwine and overlap. But since I could not grasp who was whom, or remember from one chapter to another what relationship they had with each other, this point was rather lost.

All of which sounds rather negative, but to be fair, the writing for the most part is enjoyable enough, with some nice irony here and there. I was tempted to give up a couple of times but kept going despite the lack of coherent story.. and enjoyed some interesting insights into people whose lives - albeit caricatured - are far removed from mine.

If I come across another in this series second-hand, I might well consider reading it...

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 11th October 2013


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