Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith – book review

by Edith Cody-Rice

Trains and LoversAlexander McCall Smith is a charmer and he loves the details of ordinary life. He expresses the lives of his characters with wit and in his books  follows the joys and irritations of life with compassion. His device is frequently that of the “Jane Austen village”, that is, he puts his characters into a situation in which they are captive and writes their interactions. So he did in his Corduroy Mansion series with insight and style.

In this, his latest book, which does not appear to be part of a series, Mr. McCall Smith explores the nature of love through four passengers on a train between Edinburgh and London. They are trapped in a four seater facing each other and after some trivial conversation turn to their own experiences of love. There is Andrew, the student, off to his first job; Kay, the Australian making a pilgrimage back to the outback where she was raised; David, the American on his way home and Hugh, the business man. The nature of love to be explored is romantic love and a striking feature of all the love stories is that each is characterized by a “coup de foudre”, love at first sight. Andrew fell in love with a colleague in an auction house nearly immediately; David fell in love with another boy at the age of 15; Kay talks, not about her own love, but that of her parents who started life together in the Australian outback 4 days after meeting and Hugh fell for a woman on sight when he got off the train at the wrong station and saw her waiting for a friend. Some stories end happily, some not; some love is returned, some unrequited.

Although the device of the story has each traveler talking about his or her experience, it is not at all clear that they are actually telling their stories to the other passengers. Andrew definitely is and the thoughts of the other passengers as they react to the story reveal their own. David certainly is not telling his story,one of homosexual love. He is reflecting on his unrequited passion of many years’ standing.

The stories are discreet and loosely joined together by the device of the train but each story stands as a vignette on its own. It seems to be an excuse for the author to explore the various aspects of romantic love.

Like all of Alexander McCall Smith’s books, this story is charming – less successful in some respects, particularly in the interplay of characters than some of his other books: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (which has sold over 20 million copies) or the Corduroy Mansions series. Like his other books though, this is a quick and interesting read- perfect for a summer afternoon on the deck.

Trains and Lovers is published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada and is availabe at Mill Street Books in Almonte.