44 Scotland Street – a relaxing read over coffee

Title: 44 Scotland Street
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Book Publishing
Price: INR 280 on Flipkart.com

44 Scotland Street is the first volume in a six-part (and counting) series of fiction books written by Alexander McCall Smith in the style of a serialised novel* for The Scotsman. Set amongst the hustle bustle of Scotland Street near Drummond Place (Edinburgh), the novel mainly revolves around Pat, a 20 year old on her second gap year.

We begin the tale as Pat moves in with Bruce, a self-obsessed, blatantly handsome realty surveyor living at… you guessed it, 44 Scotland Street! Within a few pages, Pat is already confused over her feelings for Bruce while he seems to have assumed in advance, that she will inevitably fall for him. While this love saga evolves, we also follow Pat’s neighbour, Bertie, a five-year-old saxophone-playing, Italian-speaking, latte-sipping child prodigy who is having problems at his school because, as his over-ambitious, pushy and hoity mother Irene thinks, he isn’t being given the attention he deserves by his teacher. On the floor above Bertie and Irene, lives Domenica Macdonald, a well-travelled and well-informed anthropologist who befriends Pat while giving her love advice and introducing her to Edinburgh’s art elite. As the story progresses, Smith attempts to keep the audience engaged (successfully at times, and unsuccessfully at others) by creating a miniature climax at the end of every chapter as required of a serialised novel.

He also endeavours to confer upon us a healthy dose of psychology through characters like Dr Fairbairn and Irene as they discuss Betie’s problems in relation to Klein, Freud and other psychoanalysts. Then there’s the character of Big Lou who is obviously created just to bestow the reader with the author’s views on literature and philosophy. All this is definitely interesting but quite prolonged at times when you just want to know ‘what happens next?’ It is also obvious that the author has written these chapters on days when he’s lacked inspiration to attend to the central storyline. Despite this, what Smith does best is, develop the characters in such detail and depth that you are willing to get through a few eventless chapters to see where their lives are headed next. The major plot and the sub-plots unfold at a slow and steady pace sticking to, what I presume was the author’s intentional theme, of a relaxing read over coffee. 

For those who’ve visited Edinburgh, Smith’s descriptions of the city’s various boroughs will invoke a pleasant sense of nostalgia while the uninitiated will no doubt, find themselves better acquainted with the beautiful capital of Scotland. Smith also, engagingly comments upon the various cliques and clans, from the pretentious art lovers to the tree hugging pseudo-hippies to the trust-fund babies, prevalent not only in Edinburgh, but in almost every town across the globe.

The author’s writing style is an interesting blend of humorous reflection and descriptive insight, making the book an easy and enjoyable read for a wide range of audiences. Personally, I found myself slipping in and out of Smith’s world quite effortlessly without too much involvement but always willing to return to spend a pleasant few hours at 44 Scotland Street. Overall, I would recommend the novel to those looking for a leisurely read but if you do decide to skip it, you won’t miss out on much.
* A serialised novel is usually published in daily instalments while the author develops the story in as it progress before the reader.

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