(4.5 stars) Alexander McCall Smith always succeeds in charming his readers with warm and humorous tales of almost normal life, lived by people who care about each other and share the values that make life worth living. Like the other novels in this series, the "plot" here consists of episodes in the lives of several loosely connected characters from 44 Scotland Street as they face separate problems of crucial importance to them (and sometimes them alone) in their everyday lives.
Little Bertie Pollock, six years old, "just wants to be normal." Forced by his domineering mother Irene to go to advanced music classes, yoga, and psychotherapy once a week, he cannot be a rough-and-tumble boy. Irene has even enlisted his help when she pumps breast milk for the baby. In the past Bertie has found some comfort from Cyril, a dog with one gold tooth, who belongs to Angus Lordie, a painter who lives in the building, but Cyril is in the pound, and Angus is in the midst of legal proceedings to reclaim him.
Other characters at 44 Scotland Street and its neighborhood are also dealing with problems. Matthew, a quiet young man who runs an art gallery, hopes that Pat, who works in his gallery, will become more fond of him--and that he will become more fond of her--given enough time. Bruce, a devastatingly handsome narcissist with few financial resources, takes advantage of Julia by moving in with her. Big Lou Brown, who runs the local coffee shop, falls in love with a construction worker who wants to return the Stuarts to the throne, and Antonia, who has previously rented Dominica's flat, buys her own place in the building and finds new "love."
McCall Smith's "ordinary" characters with almost-ordinary problems are just absurd enough to keep the reader interested in their lives while remaining just "normal" enough that the reader can smile in recognition at their folly. Far too gentle to be considered a satirist, McCall Smith nevertheless pokes fun at Edinburgh life--the clubs, intellectual pretensions, and social activities--placing his characters in the context of the city and using irony to give their problems perspective and humor. Occasionally, he shares wry asides with the reader so subtly they feel like "throwaways." A guest at the home of an art "connoisseur" suggests, for example, that "Perhaps there are minimalist things here already--it's just that we can't see them."
Ultimately, the characters' domestic problems are resolved--for now--and the reader is left to reflect on the comfortable "old-shoeness" of McCall Smith's novels with their gentle good humor. As one resident of 44 Scotland Street says, "Every so often, in a moment of insight that can be very nearly mystical in its intensity, we see others...in a way which makes us want to cherish them as joint pilgrims on a perilous journey." McCall Smith's characters feel like joint pilgrims with the reader. n Mary Whipple
Tea Time for the Traditionally Built: The New No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Novel, due April, 2009.
The Miracle at Speedy Motors, 2008.
Portuguese Irregular Verbs, first of the Dr. von Igelfeld Entertainments, 2003
The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday: An Isabel Dalhousie Novel, 2008
Love Over Scotland (44 Scotland Street), 2006
on January 24, 2009
Bertie is the amazingly forever 6 year old son whose life is ponderously observed by the elders of his city as extremely unfortunate because of his psychoanalytically infatuated mother, Irene. But, he is actually is a happy boy -- something so magnificently shown in one of the book's last chapters in which Bertie writes his autobiography -- the chapter which shares the book's title.
In this book, some of the old comrades are no more -- Domenica seems to have no relation to Pat and is soon losing friendship with her friend of yore.
But, from such losses come new alliances. Marriages abound -- or at least engagements. And, one for all the right reasons and one for all the wrong reasons -- and each between a pauper and a prince or princess.
And, Domenica seems to be getting closer to Angus -- or is there anything romantic to be conceived between these old friends? No matter what happens, the next book will address these and other issues. And, in the land of McCall Smith where the best of each character emanates from the pages, one must assume the sequel will somehow allow each to survive or at least leave no hearts broken.
Also, the book deals with a legal question of great uniquity -- McCall Smith himself is an attorney -- which can only be pointed out by little Bertie and followed by the adults around him. And, while marriages and legal questions flow on these pages, we learn about how normal the seemingly eclectic crowd of Scotland Street is -- maybe more like we Americans than even they would care to know or admit. Imagine that!
This crowd in Scotland reminds me of Zadie Smith's London crowd in White Teeth. At times the plot of each mirrors the obscurity of a television comedy. But, the dialogue here or in White Teeth is not camp, the words spoken do seem appropriate by the respective people for the respective occasions -- things are not pushed.
Sometimes less is more, but the key is not to be too minimalist. And, that difficult line to draw is what establishes McCall Smith as a great writer for the reader seeking a lighter read. This fun book, full of laughs, establishes the 44 Scotland series as being firmly rooted as an unquestionable rival to his renowned No. 1 Ladies Detective Series.
I have always been a loyal fan to grab the latest No. 1 Ladies Detective Series installment off the shelves; and, now I intend to do the same with this 44 Scotland series.
OK--Up front, let me admit that I'm one of those people who think Alexander McCall Smith can do no wrong. His multiple series, that run the gamut from Botswana to Scotland to Germany and beyond, are simply the best satirical writing and exploration of the modern human condition that I have come across in years (and I would be glad to know of other living writers of this ilk, as there cannot be enough of them to service the world in its current complicated and often melancholy state).
Having said that, I would like to earnestly praise and recommend without reservation the latest installment in the "44 Scotland Street" series. In many ways, McCall Smith's jolliest and broadest examination of human foibles, "The World According to Bertie" continues the chronicles of the lives of Scotland Street inhabitants (and former inhabitants) in the most entertaining way. Front and center in this work is six-year old Bertie Pollock, Italian-spouting, sax-playing prodigy, who desperately wants a break from his over-bearing Yuppie mother so that he can get on being a normal six-year old boy. Bertie has a new baby brother to contend with as well as the continuing over-attention of his mother and her self-important confederate, Dr. Hugo Fairbairn, child psychotherapist. The author gives Bertie and the members of his world the best lines and the most laughs. And the laughs are big!
Also in the returning cast of the story is Angus Lordie and his sidekick, Cyril the hound; Pat McGregor, twenty-something university student, part-time art gallery attendant and quasi-love interest of Matthew, earnest, well-meaning and socially clueless owner of self-same gallery; and Domenica MacDonald, anthropologist, newly returned from field research on Asian CD pirates. The vapid, but drop-dead handsome, Bruce Anderson reappears in this book and sets about upsetting new female lives. Antonia Collie, historian of Scottish saints and aging sex goddess and Big Lou, great-hearted coffee-house proprietor also play supporting roles in this book. Finally, providing an important backdrop for the story line, as always, is the city of Edinburgh--the author's beloved home and social laboratory for much of what transpires in the Scotland Street series.
As fans of McCall-Smith will know, this book's story line flows through a series of short episodes. All characters get their episodic due and, as usual, the last page leaves no doubt that these stories will continue in other installments. "The World According to Bertie" is wonderful entertainment and should not be missed even if you haven't read other books in the series.
on April 6, 2013
I really enjoyed the first 2 in this series, but now the characters are becoming
less attractive, and Bernie is just a touch too precocious. I'm not sure I'll bother
reading any of the others
Please, if you haven't read any of the novels in the 44 Scotland Street series, you should immediately go order and read 44 Scotland Street and then move on to Espresso Tales and Love Over Scotland before reading The World According to Bertie. Before making that decision, let me explain a little about the series. It began as a serial novel in The Scotsman newspaper. As a result, the writing is broken up into little vignettes that are loosely tied to each other by the relations the characters have with each other.
There's no doubt about it, Bertie Pollock makes this series work. He is the young (perpetually six so far), and blameless, example of what we all aspire to be . . . honest, fair, serious, humble, and considerate. Bertie has a problem (and we have a source of humor) in Bertie's mum, Irene, who wishes to make Bertie into a PC version of what a 21st century boy should be . . . despite Bertie's preferences and instincts to the contrary. As a result, Bertie's bedroom is painted pink, his mother encourages him to play with girls rather than boys, he takes Italian, saxophone, and yoga lessons, and he sees a psychotherapist. Irene also organizes his life . . . over much.
In this book, Irene decides that she wants to encourage Bertie to play with Olive, his nemesis at school. The consequences reverberate throughout the book.
In addition, Bertie's little brother, Ulysses, is someone Irene wants Bertie to have a close relationships with. Bertie finds an unexpected surprise while changing Ulysses' diapers that reveal fundamental flaws in his parents.
Bertie also has questions about the birds and the bees . . . but not the ones you expect.
Another major theme in the book is the genuine concern that the painter Angus Lordie has for his dog, Cyril, who faces legal proceedings for biting. You'll notice that no one in the novel cares for another human being nearly as much.
Big Lou's boyfriend is tied up in a Jacobite group and is devoted to Bonnie Prince Charlie.
After flaming out in London, Bruce is back and quickly puts the touch on an adoring young woman. Pat notices him . . . and finds she still feels excited.
Domenica is finding it very annoying to have her friend Antonia living across the hall. Antonia learns to communicate with her Polish builder in ways she hadn't expected.
Matthew still drinks a lot of coffee and feels like he needs to make changes in his romantic life. He also develops a bit of whimsy when it comes to modern art.
For me, the parts where neither Bertie nor Angus were present didn't work nearly as well. Without a lot of those two, this would have been a four-star book. The humor was aimed in more directions than usual . . . and touched on some very sensitive (and thus, very funny) topics that I didn't expect to find in the book. Two of the scenes involving Irene are ones that I'll laugh about for the rest of my life.
on May 2, 2016
Another well crafted book by Alexander McCall Smith. It is fun to read how the characters who take themselves the most seriously seem to often violate the conditions set by their own words and philosophies. Wonderfully written. I do want, however, to conduct a rescue mission for Bertie.
on October 30, 2014
I enjoy learning more about the interesting characters , am enjoying the deep and piercing insights about life and the special blend of Scottish humor displayed by the neighbors. I have grown to love Domenica, eccentric Angus and his loyal Cyril, I long to liberate Bertie from his well meaning but obnoxious mummy and I root for loyal steadfast Matthew, knowing that, at the right time, he will find a woman truly worthy of his live!
on August 26, 2015
Each character (well almost all of them, you can have Bruce) of these novels is like friend with whom you might like to share a glass of wine at Cumberland! I particularly like the story of Cyril 's exoneration.
on December 13, 2014
The humor remains and sometimes reigns, even sadly, but that's the problem with this series. It seems to be devolving into curmudgeonlyness, without enough of the zestiness of optimism that gives his books balance. Too much salt, not enough pepper.
That said, the story is entertaining, and the heartfelt depictions of locality and emphasis on friendship give this book, and the author's other books, universal value.
Mary Clark, author of Tally: An Intuitive Life
on May 29, 2013
This novel is the fourth in the 44 Scotland Street series and I must say, McCall Smith is at his best. By now the characters, six year-old Bertie, excentric Angus
Lordie, Pat, Matthew, Domenica have become old friends. Their adventures, Angus' dog Cyril is "arrested" for biting, Bertie's little brother is "misplaced" and Pat's marriage proposal move the plot along nicely. But there's more. Bruce returns to
Edinbourgh from London and his life takes a most unexpected turn. Bertie's mother, Irene, remains as formidable as ever and Big Lou has a new boyfriend. This delightful book ends with a dinner party in Domenica's flat and who wouldn't want to be seated at the table with these charming, fascinating characters. I can't wait for Alexander McCall Smith to invite me back.