“A Time of Love and Tartan” by Alexander McCall Smith

People-watching is a fascinating pastime. It seems rather boring because most of one’s subjects do not inspire great interest. It’s sort of like buying lottery tickets: a mug’s game, as everyone knows. However, we are kept entranced by the possibility that any one of our humdrum attempts could suddenly turn out to be a winner.

So it is with Alexander McCall Smith’s “44 Scotland Street” series, and “A Time of Love and Tartan” in particular. This so-called novel is really a low-key soap opera, peeking through the curtains of the inhabitants of an apartment building in Edinburgh. And as fans of the series have learned to expect, most of the conflict is minor and our interest is kept on a very slow boil by the beautiful descriptions of settings and people, and the down-home philosophy which rolls off McCall Smith’s pen like clear water down a Scottish burn. 

This installment is rather a gathering together of threads of other stories; all the characters are old familiar friends, all the conflicts taken out like old photo albums to be glanced through and tidied up a bit before packing away. 

I must protest that two of the plot threads are unmitigated schlock. One completely contrived situation comedy conflict was only saved by the originality of the solution, which had me laughing out loud. The other, a recycled byproduct from a former book, looked so much like an afterthought jammed in for padding that it should have been left out completely. 

But any flaws were forgiven in the end chapters, which brought my favourite character, Bertie, to the fore. The child of a wonderfully soft father and an unbearably overwhelming mother, Bertie is a seven-year-old philosopher who is much more aware of what is going on than anyone expects. So it is doubly poignant when the problems that only he seems to be aware of are solved, in McCall Smith’s gentle way, to everyone’s satisfaction. 

Don’t start this series by reading this book. That would be too much like showing up for the last hour of a party that started early in the afternoon. 

Go back and take a two- or three-book run at it. You’ll enjoy it all the more. 

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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