This Unrequited Love Thing: The Forever Girl

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Before I went to Edinburgh, I had never read Alexander McCall Smith. I’d barely heard of him (hard to believe now – he’s everywhere!).

But after spending four magical days in that city (seriously, my favourite after Amsterdam) I started looking for books to take me back. Alexander McCall Smith fit that bill in a big way. I’ve since started digging into the 44 Scotland Street series, given Isabel Dalhousie and the Sunday Philosopher’s Club a chance, and even tried his version of Emma (sadly that one doesn’t take place in Edinburgh).

I love McCall Smith’s ability to write about the every day and infuse it with meaning. I love that his books cover parts of the lives of a myriad of different characters and that his love for Edinburgh is evident on every page. He is skilled at contemplating the minutiae of the commonplace and reading his work is like a big ol’ cup of tea on a grey day.

So I was excited to read The Forever Girl.

forever girl

Amanda and David are raising their son and daughter within the ex-pat community on Grand Cayman Island. The nature of the Island (a tax shelter) means that most people on the island have a lot of money. Amanda spends her days at the tennis club, practicing her serve while the children are left in the care of their nanny. Their daughter Sally, decides she’d rather be called Clover at age 4, and finds herself falling in love with James, her childhood best friend.

While Clover is figuring out this love thing, Amanda is finding that life on such a small island, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, can actually be extremely claustrophobic. She realizes that she’s fallen out of love with her husband and is conflicted about what to do about it.

I liked the storyline that centered on Amanda. As she struggles to come to terms with the state of her marriage, she tries to decide what to do about it. Does she want to get out of her marriage? Does she want to change the whole structure of her family or just ride it out? She flirts with the idea of an affair and realizes that in a place this small, there could be serious repercussions that don’t just affect her.

But then Clover takes over the story and I wanted to like Clover but the whole unrequited love thing is getting old for me I think. I have a really hard time with female characters that make decisions based on men. Clover goes to boarding school in Scotland, while her love James, goes to England. Something happened that has made James cool towards Clover but instead of just asking him what’s wrong, she just inwardly shakes and hopes that everything will work out.

Her parents have all this money and she can do anything she wants. She’s a smart girl but she pins all of her hopes and dreams, all of her chances at happiness on the idea of being with this one boy. She closes her mind and her heart to the idea of ever being with anyone else. She travels to Australia and Singapore and all of it is motivated with being near James. But she won’t just say to him “James, I have been in love with you since we were 11.”

I need these kinds of characters to stop. I need to read female characters that say “f*%& this sh*t, I’m not waiting around for this chump, I’m going to make my own destiny.”

I love Alexander McCall Smith but this one? Fell flat for me.


Revisiting Old Friends: Espresso Tales

I’ve been blazing through a lot of newer reading lately. I’m not complaining – it’s been awesome. There have been some fantastic books coming out.

But every once in a while, it’s kind of nice to step back and wander off with an older book. It had been a while since I first spent time with the denizens of 44 Scotland Street and I decided that it was about time I went back to see how they were all doing.

Alexander McCall Smith is the kind of writer that is able to weight ordinary, everyday occurrences with all kinds of significance and I enjoy spending time in his world. I think one of the things that makes this series such an original is that all of the places described are real – a quick Google maps search will take you to any of the spots mentioned. Go ahead – google 44 Scotland Street.

Nice spot right?

It’s one of the things I love the most about reading these books – a chance to spend some time in Edinburgh, one of my favourite cities on the planet, even if I can’t actually be in Edinburgh.


The second book, Espresso Tales, takes place more or less where we left off: Bruce is still self obsessed, although this time he’s trying to take advantage of a guy who has always tried to be a good friend to him; Pat is still kind of wandering in the wilderness between her back to back gap years and actually starting university; six year old Bertie is still trying desperately to get out from under his mother’s thumb; and Domenica is still the resident oracle, full of keen observances on the state of the human condition.

This book was heavy on Bertie as he tried to get his mom to stop making him wear pink overalls and go to normal children’s birthday parties instead of to yoga, Italian classes and saxophone lessons. He’s an incredibly insightful little boy and I suspect that if his parents listened to him a little more they would be surprised at just how perceptive he is.

One marked difference in this instalment is that McCall Smith seems to branch out a little bit, taking us into the lives of those that are connected to 44 Scotland Street but don’t necessarily live there. In this way, McCall Smith is casting his net a little wider, including more of Edinburgh in his stories. The characters that he has created are deeply flawed and almost all of them think more of themselves and their significance than they maybe should. But that’s what’s so great about reading these books – McCall Smith tells us like it is in a very straightforward way that I’m coming to learn is fairly Scottish. 

It was a lovely little read, perfect for brief snatches of reading time – because it was originally serialized for newspaper publication, the chapters are short, more like a collection of short stories than a novel.

I definitely had a good time catching up with my friends in Edinburgh and you can bet that I’ll be on the lookout for the next installment, Love Over Scotland, when I’m next at the library.


A Saturday Post

I never post on the weekends but I’ve been kind of a slacker in the blog department this week so I thought maybe a weekend post would make it up to you.

The other day I was wondering aloud about why there are so rarely books that are illustrated anymore. If you ever get the right Dickens’ version of anything you will get delightful illustrations. I believe that William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair has them as well – evidently a trend in their time. Adults like pictures too! This topic led me down the rabbit hole of wondering why there aren’t any more novel serializations in newspapers.

Aside from the fact that newspapers almost aren’t even a thing anymore, wouldn’t it be delightful if, among all the stories of explosions, war, deadly storms and bad people, there were fictional stories that lightened the mood? I’d read that.

Then I started reading 44 Scotland Street. Evidently Alexander McCall Smith had the same thoughts a few years ago. 44 Scotland Street was serialized in The Scotsman in Edinburgh and after the fact it was put together in a book and illustrated.

I wonder if I could have used more italics in that last paragraph…

Reading through some of the reviews on Goodreads before I started the book the consensus seemed to be that the book is about nothing. I’m not totally sure that I agree but it is one of those books about everyday life. Kind of the way A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about everyday things but is one of the best books ever.

44 scotland street

44 Scotland Street introduces us to a variety of characters living in apartments at…yeah, 44 Scotland Street. Pat is on her second gap year, working in a gallery wher she may or may not have found a famous painter’s work. Bruce is Pat’s flatmate, the most narcissistic, arrogant little sh*t you ever did meet – he’s out for himself and there’s nothing better than watching him fail. Domenica MacDonald is the neighbour across the hall, an anthropologist that has lived lives enough for 2 people, she introduces Pat to a whole other side of Edinburgh. And there’s little Bertie, a five-year-old pushed into learning Italian and playing the tenor sax by his overbearing mother, Irene.

I will admit to having a soft spot for anything taking place in Edinburgh or by authors that hail from that particular spot on the planet right now. I was in Edinburgh in the Spring, it’s where I got engaged and if there was any way I could live there for always, I’d do it in a heartbeat. For now I will have to content myself with reading about it. This was the first book by Alexander McCall Smith that I read – I will be following this up with more. Lucky for me there are a lot of titles to choose from! McCall Smith enjoyed the experience of writing this serialization so much that he extended the run and there is now a series about the characters.

This book basically managed to take three things I felt were missing from my literary education – illustrations, serialized fiction, and Edinburgh – and put them all in one book. A library win.