The vote for Scottish independence will be held on September 18th, and emotions are running high across the Pond. For a long time it seemed that the vote wouldn’t even be close, with a significant majority of Scots inclined to remain united with England, but the gap has nearly disappeared as the vote approaches. A 22 percentage point lead has evaporated, leaving the vote within the margin of error, according to one very recent poll. From complicated beginnings, England and Scotland seem to have made a fruitful and prosperous marriage these last three centuries. I’m with J.K. Rowling in hoping they can work things out.
Scots were all abuzz about the vote when we visited London and Scotland this summer on a wonderful tour led by Nashville portrait artist Shane Neal. (We asked about the vote; they asked what we thought of Obama.) In preparation for the trip, I looked for a few classic and current Scottish novels to read. In 2013, literary critic Stuart Kelly and the Scottish Book Trust curated a list of the top 50 Scottish books of the last 50 years. Readers weighed in to select their top 10. One of the top books on both lists is 44 Scotland Street, by Alexander McCall Smith, originally published serially in 2005 in The Scotsman newspaper. You’ll recognize Smith’s name: he’s written the internationally best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
44 Scotland Street is a walk in a big city park on a sunny day. It is stimulating, invigorating, full of curious and amusing things, and ultimately cheerful. It tells the story of the interrelated lives of inhabitants of an apartment building in Edinburgh – Pat, a young woman sub-leasing from the vainglorious Bruce, whom she falls in love with; Irene, a pushy mother whose 6-year-old, Bertie, eventually rebels against saxophone lessons and learning Italian; and Domenica, a wise, sherry-sipping widow who is an amateur anthropologist. You also come to care quite deeply about the fate of kind, insecure Matthew, who owns the art gallery nearby where lovelorn Pat works.
In some ways, these are characters who could live anywhere – there is something universal about a young woman suffering in love, a handsome and prideful lothario, an overambitious mother, a wise old woman, and an insecure, good-hearted young man. But these characters in Smith’s novel live and breathe very specifically in Edinburgh; they think and talk quite a lot about how different types of people relate to each other in Edinburgh based on where they live and what they do. “44 Scotland Street does for Edinburgh what Armistead Maupin did for San Francisco: it seeks to capture the city’s rhythms by focusing on a small, emblematic corner,” said the Financial Times Magazine. I came away from this book with a very distinct sense of the various snobberies, common expectations, and kindnesses one could expect as a resident of Edinburgh (some not so dissimilar from what one might find in Nashville).
44 Scotland Street is unusual among modern novels in that it was initially serialized in a newspaper (as Dickens’ novels were). As a result, each chapter has its own self-contained story – and yet also builds enough suspense that you are anxious to start the next.
Smith is not opaque in his intentions, which he articulates in the novel’s introduction:
What I have tried to do in 44 Scotland Street is to say something about life in Edinburgh which will strike readers as being recognizably about this extraordinary city and yet at the same time be a bit of light-hearted fiction. I think that one can write about amusing subjects and still remain within the realm of serious fiction. It is in observing the minor ways of people that one can still see very clearly the moral dilemmas of our time. One task of fiction is to remind us of the virtues – of love and forgiveness, for example – and these can be portrayed just as well in an ongoing story of everyday life as they can on a more ambitious and more leisurely canvas.
44 Scotland Street is an unpretentiously excellent “bit of light-hearted fiction.” I sent it to my father, who loved it every bit as much as I did; that’s quite a testament to its cross-gender, cross-generational, cross-the-Pond appeal. This novel broadens your world, deepens your heart and entertains, in equal measure.