Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rosecrans Baldwin writes a novel about the disservices of memory.

This novel, set in coastal Maine among medical researchers, intrigued me for many reasons. It is an impressive debut.

You Lost Me There

In Rosecrans Baldwin’s debut novel, a research scientist who studies Alzheimer’s disease is forced to confront the faultiness of his own memory of his beloved wife and their life together. You Lost Me There (296 pages, Riverhead Books, $25.95) explores the obsessive routines of a research scientist in his late fifties, Dr. Victor Aaron. As he deals with a difficult staff and tries to put together new grant proposals, Victor struggles with memories of his wife Sara, who was killed sometime before in an automobile accident on the isolated Maine island where they lived together. The Soberg Institute is located there, on Mount Desert Island, named for the man who first gave the bequest that made research on the elderly even possible.

Victor had come to the institute, with Sara, after a distinguished career at Harvard, NYU, and elsewhere. With his assistant Lucy, Victor has made real inroads to explain how Alzheimer’s actually attacks the brain. Sara was happy to accompany Victor to Mount Desert Island because she spent much of her childhood there.

In the day to day life we witness, Victor is compulsive and overbearing in off-putting ways. He works long hours, swims for exercise, and occasionally spends intimate time with another researcher, a graduate student called Regina. She is something of a femme fatale, and she has been intrigued by this dapper and distracted older gentleman. As she gets to know him, however, she is frightened at how little he is able to commit to their relationship.

It is no wonder that Victor is distracted. He thinks all the time about his dead wife, and, even worse, he has discovered a sheaf of index cards on which she had written about key moments in their relationship for a marriage counselor that she had begun to see before her death. It turns out that Sara was a desperately unhappy woman, and she was unhappy especially because of the way she was treated by her husband.

What he saw as his quiet and helpful support as she tried to put together some kind of career as a writer, she saw as abandonment—would he ever be home from the lab?—and various forms of torment while he thought he'd actually tried to help her and give her his full attention. Sara, who comes vividly alive in her little index card insertions, is struggling to be herself, and Victor, as distant and overbearing as he is, has only ever hindered her progress. Moreover, she feels, when she finally had her big success, he undermined it all by treating it as a fluke and nothing very special.

Victor, who is still in the habit of staying at the lab till after midnight and slipping out to swim just as the sun comes up, sees things very differently. He cannot imagine that Sara took things the ways she did. In some ways, he wonders whether she is even remembering things correctly. But the more he wonders about it, the more he thinks that maybe it is his memory that is all screwed up. This of course brings on a moment of crisis for this research scientist who studies memory; and when it comes, it isn’t pretty.

Rosecrans Baldwin has written about this middle-aged crisis well, and he has depicted the failure of marriage with aplomb. This is a strong start for a novelist, and I look forward to whatever he takes on next.

Rosecrans Baldwin

You Lost Me There available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Maggie Pouncey tells the story of a girl who has to deal with her father’s literary remains.

Maggie Pouncey’s novel is about picking up after a literary scholar, the president of a small college in New England, after he dies suddenly. This sounded like an intriguing topic to me.

Perfect Reader

Maggie Pouncey’s debut novel Perfect Reader (269 pages, Pantheon, $24.95) concerns a young woman’s attempt to come to terms with her father’s naming her his literary executor. Lewis Dempsey has died suddenly, and his daughter Flora has returned to the New England college town where he worked. She is surprised to find a cache of poetry that she is supposed to decide about publishing. At first, she can hardly begin to read the poems, much less decide about publishing them.

She takes up residence in her father’s house, and she also deals with many issues of her own past. She of course spent her girlhood in this town, first in her father’s presidential abode, and later in the house with her mother where the two females moved after her parents' divorce. Flora feels odd living in her father’s house, and she feels odd to be back in Darwin, the town. She functions a bit as an automaton at first, both because of her grief for her dad and because she can’t quite deal with herself in this context.

As she settles in, she meets two key people. The first, Cynthia Reynolds, was her father’s girlfriend at the time of his death. She is devoted to his memory, and she would love to be friends with Flora too. As it turns out, she is the only other person to have seen Lewis’ late poems. No one besides these two women really knows that he wrote any poetry at all. As a literary critic, he always wrote about poetry, but he didn’t write the poetry itself. Now, however, it seems as if he has. Flora doesn’t yet know what to think about the poems, but Cynthia has decided a) they are great, and b) they should be published.

When Flora looks into the poems and sees that many of them are about Cynthia, she feels both hurt that her father didn’t write about her some more and suspicious of Cynthia’s desire to publish. The tension between these two women builds over the course of the novel. They cannot quite settle into friendship, and they seem to be working at cross purposes a lot of the time.

Flora also meets and takes up sexually, if not romantically, with Paul, her father’s attorney. Paul helps her with a few of her responsibilities as literary executor, and he also challenges her about the poems and what she plans to do with them.

The last important character as Flora tries to deal with the memory of her father is, of course, her mother. A truly wonderful creation, Flora’s mother weighs in with judgments and advice that are usually unwanted. But in the end, she is the person who helps Flora deal with the firestorm that erupts on the internet once it is known that she is sitting on these poems of her famous father.

Ultimately, Flora does decide to publish, but it is watching her get to that point that is really interesting. She is an irritating character in a lot of ways: oddly passive in pressing situations; vague to the point of aggressiveness at times; impulsive in her actions at the best of times. But still, she is a rich character, and the crisis in which she finds herself is surely intriguing.

I think Pouncey has done a good job in this, her first novel. There are some wonderful moments in this work, and they bode well for whatever other projects Pouncey may be planning.

Maggie Pouncey

Get a copy of Perfect Reader at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Robyn Carr writes a novel that could double as a self-help volume.

Robyn Carr has many novels to her name, but this is the first time I have sampled her writing. The novel leaves a lot to be desired in terms of complexity of plot and depth of character. But it tells a simple story well enough.

A Summer in Sonoma

A Summer in Sonoma (416 pages, Mira, $7.99) is Robyn Carr’s latest novel about women living in Northern California. In this case, Cassie, Julie, Marty, and Beth met as cheerleaders in a high school in the Sacramento area. Now approaching thirty, they are all dealing with life and loves in different ways, but their friendship survives and sustains them.

In a sense, the characters seem a bit like a range of personality types that might emerge in a self-help volume. Cassie is overweight and self-deprecating. She works hard as an Emergency Room nurse, but she hasn’t had a decent relationship with a man. Julie has been happily married to Billy since just after high school. They have three wonderful kids. But in spite of Billy’s two jobs—he’s a fireman/paramedic, and he works in carpentry—they cannot really meet their monthly expenses. Marty and Joe are better off, happily married with one child—Joe is a fireman too, and Marty is a hairdresser—but Marty is fed up with Joe’s slovenly habits and the ways in which he seems to be taking her for granted since their marriage. Beth, single like Cassie, is a smart and intelligent OB/GYN doctor. She hasn't problems with money, but she has no time for dating, and she can barely make the lunch meetings that the four women have from time to time.

As the novel opens, Cassie is nearly date-raped in the front seat of an SUV when the noise of her protests and resistance brings a big biker to her aid. He breaks the car window and saves her from the slob who refused to take "no!" for an answer. Walt, the biker, seems to be a nice guy, and Cassie is almost attracted to him. But, of course, he is biker, complete with a pony tail and a naked woman tattoo, and she cannot feel that he would be right for her.

The novel insists on playing out this resistance, rather clumsily, and at the same time concealing the position Walt holds in the Harley Davidson franchise. Rather than working as a simple mechanic, Walt owns the company. This won’t come as a surprise to an attentive reader, but Cassie is shocked, and his “sudden” wealth almost destroys the relationship.

Julie and Billy are beside themselves with the struggle to make ends meet; and when it seems that Julie is pregnant with their fourth child, she just about has a nervous breakdown. This leads them into a huge crisis in which they lose the baby and seem to be getting out of touch with each other. When bankruptcy seems their only option, they happen into the office of a Mormon credit counselor, whose advice is so good that they are living it up—and imagining building the family again—before too many months have passed.

Marty has to figure out whether to leave Joe or to have an affair or whatever. She has tried talking to him, but he just doesn’t listen. For Joe, his home is his castle, and he doesn’t feel that he should have to do anything to court the woman he married years ago. When Marty runs into a high school sweetheart, whom she had for years dated miserably—he was always unfaithful—she is almost tempted to cheat on Joe. This crisis for her nearly destroys the marriage, but again they seem almost uncannily able to find their love again even after it had seemed completely lost.

Beth has the most difficult story. Having suffered breast cancer and a mastectomy in her mid-twenties, she now has a lump in her other breast. This time she decides to go it on her own, and she doesn’t even tell her friends when a second mastectomy is recommended. She finds a very caring doctor, though, some twenty years her senior, who not only deals with her cancer, but also offers her the first romantic attachment she has had in years.

These plots all work out satisfactorily, and along the way, Carr has given advice on relationships, family finances, dating practices, and motorcycle riding in Sonoma County. It could be worse.

Robyn Carr

Get a copy of A Summer in Sonoma at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Peter Mayle writes an entertaining mystery

I have read Peter Mayle’s travel writing, but I haven’t read one of his novels till now. This was fun in ways that I should have expected.

The Vintage Caper

Peter Mayle’s The Vintage Caper (240 pages, Vintage, $14.95) is a celebration of Southern France. Mayle is a well-known and well-respected travel writer, and he uses his considerable expertise on all things Provençal to give character to his otherwise overly simple mystery.

Mayle tells the story of an odious Hollywood entertainment lawyer—he gets off a few zingers about Hollywood and entertainment law in the process—who has a multi-million dollar wine collection, the most valuable bottles of which come, of course, from Bordeaux. When his self-importance leads him to publicize his own collection in an LA Times interview, he finds himself a bit over-exposed; and it is not too long after this that the three million-dollar-centerpiece of his collection—his impressive list of French wines—is stolen and taken out of the country while he is on a skiing holiday.

When he asked for reimbursement from his insurance company, the wily Sam Levitt, himself a former habitué of the shadows of illegality, is called on board to help them recover the wine. This is far preferable to them than paying out $3,000,000 in insurance money.

After Sam’s attempts to trace the theft in the States leads nowhere, Sam persuades the insurance company to send him to France. He posits that the best place to start looking is in Bordeaux itself. This is where the novel really begins. Sam is put in touch with Sophie Costes, a native of the region, who is happy to chat with him over rich dinners and expensive wines. Their search for the missing bottles leads them to Marseilles, and it is there that Mayle pulls out all the stops of his rich descriptive powers.

Not only do we get all the beauties of Marseilles and the surrounding countryside, but Mayle treats us to details of exquisite dinners, and he describes every wine they drink and some they only talk about. At one point, Mayle actually gives us a recipe for cooking sea bass with fennel and armignac.

With almost embarrassing ease, Sam finds the bottles; and with equal ease, he spirits them away again. The plot hardly seems the point, though; for every time Sam handles the bottles, he describes the wine. Mayle seems to be setting himself up as a narrative Robert Parker, the wine writer who has done a lot to offer us a vocabulary of wine description.

Mayle writes with a light touch. There is a simmering relationship between Sam and his LA girfreiend, a fiery Latina, and there are little charges of frisson with his French accomplice; but for the most part, this book is about the landscape of Provence and the food that is eaten and the wine that is drunk there. So who’s complaining?

Peter Mayle

Get a copy of Mayle's The Vintage Caper at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ayelet Waldman tells a tale steeped in tragedy

I read a brief account of this novel, and I knew that I would like it. But I did not know that I would like it as well as I did.

Red Hook Road

Red Hook Road (352 pages, Doubleday, $25.95), the title of Ayelet Waldman's new novel, refers to a dangerous stretch of road in a beautiful coastal village in Maine. The story opens on a richly floral summer wedding in a white clapboard church with the ocean in the distance. The bride is stunningly tanned and sparkling in the devotion she feels to her beau of ten years. He is handsome and charismatic is his way, and everyone at the wedding admires this nearly flawless couple.

During the ceremony itself, we learn of a lot of tension between the two families. Becca, the bride, is the daughter of Iris and Daniel Copaken: she's a high-powered literary scholar and professor, and he's a feckless and under-achieving lawyer. They both love their daughter deeply. The groom's parents are divorced, but his mother, Jane Tetherly, is a local woman who cleans the houses of families like the Copakens, who leave Manhattan every summer to spend a few months in the glorious house they have there.

The bride and groom each have one younger sibling too: the groom John's younger is Matt, handsome and accomplished in his way, but nowhere near as charismatic as his older brother. Ruthie cannot hold a candle to Becca, the bride, even though she is a successful student of literature who seems to be following in her mother's footsteps.

Becca, it seems, had taken after her mother's father, a violin virtuoso who alone among his family escaped the Nazi extermination of the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s. Although by the time of the wedding she had given up music in order to work with her boyfriend on a charter boat business--John is rebuilding a schooner that will serve this purpose--Iris has never quite forgiven her daughter: she blames John for this change of heart and she deplores the marriage on these and other social grounds that she hardly dare articulate to herself.

When in the second chapter, then, everyone waiting for the bride and groom to arrive at the reception are greeted instead with the horrifying news that the couple has been killed, along with their driver, in a hideous crash on Red Hill Road.

The rest of the novel follows the remaining characters in summer after summer as they attempt to cope with this devastating loss. Waldman is wonderful in getting inside the grief of parents at a time like this. Iris, Daniel, and Jane all react so differently: Iris turns in on herself and re-analyzes every moment with her daughter; Daniel finds himself returning to the boxing ring of his youth and expressing his anger by bashing other men and being bashed by them; Jane simmers with vitriolic resentment, and she goes as far as blaming the Copakens for what happened to her son. Their grief drives all these characters apart until some fascinating events in the plot bring them back together, but there is nothing at all easy about the process of mourning that they all experience.

Mourning too and almost unacknowledged in the extent of their grief stand Matt and Ruthie. Pale imitations of their older siblings, the lives of these two characters seem to be falling apart--Matt drops out of Amherst, where he hoped to study oceanography; and Ruthie finds that her literary study ceases to have meaning for her. Matt's solution is to attempt to continue rebuilding the boat his brother was working on at his death. Ruthie tries to throw commemorative parties as a way of remembering the lost pair--the tragic wedding took place on the day after July 4, so Ruthie uses the traditional lobster bake and firework event, as strange as that sounds.

The novel weaves us in and out of these individual lives beautifully, and it also places these characters in fascinating relation to one another. The mourning itself--irrational, demanding, and debilitating--shapes the plot. The events that bring this process to a close are almost as arbitrary as the automobile accident that started it. Waldman pushes her characters almost to the end of sanity, I think, in order to give them no resort but turning to one another at the end.

This is a wonderful novel, and although it is painfully melancholy throughout, it also opens new vistas of hope and promise.

Ayelet Waldman

Get a copy of Red Hook Road at Vroman's, Powell's or Amazon.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tana French writes a novel of family terror.

I enjoyed Tana French’s first novel, In the Woods, and I really looked forward to this one. It is set in Dublin, and it’s really a meditation on the meaning of family.

Faithful Place

Tana French’s Faithful Place (416 pages, Viking Adult, $25.95) takes its title from a (fictional) street in the working class “Liberties” section of Dublin. Frank Mackey, the hero of the novel, escaped from this world long before the novel opens. When he was in his late teens, he and his girlfriend, Rosie Daly, who is also from the neighborhood, planned to meet late at night and take the ferry to England, where they hoped they would be able to start a new life together. When Rosie didn’t show up that night--Frank found a note to suggest that she might have run out on him—Frank decided to take off anyway. If he didn’t leave Ireland, at least he moved to a completely different part of Dublin.

After a few false starts, Frank worked into a position as a undercover detective with the Dublin police. In the twenty-some years since the events on Faithful Place, Frank has earned a name for himself as a tough and resourceful detective. He has also been married and divorced, and he has a daughter who means all the world to him.

Frank is a hard-bitten character—maybe familiar to some from French’s novel The Likeness—and we are led to believe that a lot of his anger and his hatreds come from his disappointment on that night so many years ago.

When a young girl’s decomposed body is found under a slab in the basement of a house on Faithful Place, the house where Frank and Rosie planned to meet that night, all the old pain is dredged up again.

Frank returns to Faithful Place, but that means confronting his family, all of whom still live there. He has not communicated with his family since that night, in part because he blamed them for what happened. His father was locked in some kind of battle with Rosie’s father, and the public and belligerent nature of the hatred between the two men, Frank thinks, might have scared Rosie off.

Frank has two brothers, one older and one much younger, and two sisters, in the same configuration. He is closest to his youngest sister, Jackie, and he has more or less kept in touch with her over the years. He has let her know about his marriage and about his daughter.

The discovery of the body gives way to a who-done-it of a kind. But the actual identity of the murderer is far less important than the portrait of the family that emerges in the process. Frank’s parents—vivid near-parodies of the classic Irish pair—have given births to tensions and rivalries in their five kids. The boys especially seem to be at one another’s throats for reasons that are not immediately apparent. Shay, the oldest, a handsome, wiry, and intense guy, resents having had to shoulder the burden of parental responsibility when Frank took off. Kevin, the youngest, seems overly impressed with his older brothers and is ready to be taken advantage of.

Put this combination together with a nagging mother and abusive father, and you have the classic makings of dysfunction. French plays this for all it is worth. The results are compelling, to be sure, but a reader might also feel that the whole procedure is too predictable and a little heavy handed.

Heavy handed too are the relentless Irishisms in the characters’ speech. The slang lingo is so persistent that it almost comes to seem a mockery of the characters who speak it. I am fairly certain that is not what the author intended.

If there are a few too many intense family confrontations and a bit too much slang, there is still a wonderfully engaging story to be told, and when French concentrates on moving that forward, she certainly succeeds.

I’ve enjoyed this novel, but I am also glad the experience is behind me. I will give French’s next novel a try, but I hope that she can break into something new.

Tana French

Get a copy of Tana French's Faithful Place at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Daniel Silva writes an art historical thriller

I have not read Daniel Silva before, but a mention of this novel intrigued me. Now that I have read it, I feel that I should go back and read some of his earlier novels.

The Rembrandt Affair

What starts as a seemingly simple, if grizzly, story of art theft, The Rembrandt Affair (496 pages, Putnam Adult, $26.95), Daniel Silva’s latest novel in his Gabriel Allon series, quickly becomes enmeshed in a high-stakes Israeli-Iranian showdown, concerning arms sales and nuclear proliferation.

After an eerily suggestive opening, we are introduced to Julian Livingston, a London art dealer, who is distraught at the loss of the Rembrandt “Portrait of a Young Girl,” which he had put in the hands of a talented art restorer in order to complete a multi-million dollar sale. The painting has been stolen, it seems, and the restorer himself brutally murdered.

Livingston turns to his old friend Gabriel Allon, an art restorer who is also a retired member of the Israeli Secret Service. Allon is trying to put his life and that of his Italian wife Chiara back together after the death of their son. Gabriel and Chiara are living in an isolated town in Cornwall (England). At first, when Livingston approaches Gabriel, the old Secret Service agent hero resists; but because of his background in art and because he owes Livingston a favor, Gabriel takes on the task of finding the lost picture.

Of course the first thing Gabriel decides to do is to discover the provenance of the painting. After what seems like a very short time, it becomes clear that the painting disappeared during the second world war, in Amsterdam, and only reappeared several years after the war.

Discovering what happened in those dark years takes Gabriel right into the world of Holocaust survivors. It turns out that the painting was stolen from an upper-class Jewish merchant in Holland. In a devastating scene, we witness a villainous Gestapo officer using the painting to taunt its owner as he is being sent off to the death camps. The officer offers the man the life of his daughter in exchange for the painting. It is a brutal offer, but the man accepts the terms and takes a receipt for the exchange.

This receipt, when it turns up in the hands of the daughter who was saved, offers the chance to finally attach something specific to the name of Kurt Voss, the Gestapo officer involved. But not only that, history also proves that Voss hid an account of the personal savings he stole and where he placed that money in Switzerland. This list he tucked into the back of the Rembrandt painting.
In the present day, the painting is being sought for the very reason of what it hides. Not only is Kurt Voss’s name besmirched with this concrete information, but also the world of Swiss banking is threatened in so much as the full extent of its cooperation with Nazi thieves has never fully been known.

The one financier who seems most threatened by these disclosures is Martin Landesmann, the son of a crooked Swiss banker, who has tried to attach his own name to public causes and improvements in the third world. But it turns out that he has kept up his father’s nefarious dealings; and as a result, he seeks the Rembrandt painting as a way of protecting his own name.

When the conflict reaches its climax, the Israeli has recruited a charming British muckraker—something of a femme fatale—to help him infiltrate Landesmann’s world. When this almost blows up in his face, after a spine-tingling series of close calls and near misses, Gabriel finds himself in a position to call all the shots once again. As soon as he does, the results are reasonably satisfying to himself and his allies.

Silva has written a well-paced and gripping thriller, and he teaches something about art restoration as well as reminding us about some of the most recent threats to international stability. I will certainly look up some of his earlier novels, and I will be pleased to review them here.

Daniel Silva

Pick up a copy of The Rembrandt Affair at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Allegra Goodman recreates the world we almost lost on 9/11

I read just one review of this novel before ordering it for myself. Since then I have seen other reviews, always full of praise, but also with a note of resignation: this story, we suppose, just had to be told. I didn’t really understand what those reviewers meant. But now I do.

The Cookbook Collector

Allegra Goodman’s richly evocative novel, The Cookbook Collector (X pages, Press, $$), takes us back before the events of 9/11 to the tech mania of the late nineties. Set in both the San Francisco Bay Area, including Silicon Valley, and Boston/Cambridge, the novel centers on two sisters, Emily and Jess(amine) Bach. Emily is the CEO of a high tech company, Veritech, which is about to go public. Jess is a faltering grad student in Philosophy. She and Emily are close, but Emily cannot really understand what Jess is doing with her life. Jess is uneasy herself, but she really does not want to live life on Emily’s or anyone else’s terms.

Emily’s long distance boyfriend, Jonathan, is the CEO of his own company, in Boston, ISIS. Each of these companies is successful in its way, but when Emily’s goes public, the sky seems to be the limit. The stock price goes up and up and all the members of the company realize wealth unimaginable just month before. Gazillionaires, they keep calling themselves, because they have no other language for what is happening to them. Jonathan’s company is not there yet, but he is even more ruthlessly ambitious then Emily. When she confides her company’s next move, it is all he can do to keep himself from betraying her trust immediately.

Both Emily’s and Jonathan’s companies are peopled with the hyper-smart and unbelievably young types who in any other culture would still be students. Instead, they are leading some kind of cultural revolution, and they know it. Orion, Jonathan’s friend, is smart and committed, but he worries about where his ideas are taking him. Sorel, an English girl who works with him, sees all this high tech stuff as her day job, as she tries to build a career as a performance artist. Emily’s company, too, has a cast of fascinating characters, from her personal assistant Laura to her own assemblage of brilliant physicists and programmers who have left other careers in order to soar with her.

Meanwhile, Jess finds herself working part-time in a second hand bookstore in Berkeley. Her boss, George, himself a product of the tech revolution, is wealthy and retired and able to amuse himself with collecting books. He and Jess get on—she is smart enough to stand up to him, and he is smart enough to challenge her on her own level—and as their working relationship becomes more complicated, he finds that he is falling in love with her.

The key to his attraction is her involvement with an amazing cookbook collection that he comes upon in his book dealing. When he asks Jess to help him persuade the seller to part with the collection, and then again when he asks her to catalog the collection, he realizes what a complete treasure she is.

Jess, though, is deeply involved with the head of the Save the Redwoods foundation, and she finds herself drawn north to be with the darkly handsome Leon, who wants her to embrace his cause.
Into this assortment of interests and tensions fall the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It is a date that involves all these characters in different ways. Some characters lose their lives; others lose everything that they had built; and everyone who survives feels like she or he have to rediscover who they are.

Allegra Goodman brings this novel to a beautiful conclusion. One might think some of her moves are a bit melodramatic, but she is telling us about an age that can only be described in terms of melodrama. The wedding at the end of the novel is truly moving. This is a novel to savor.

Allegra Goodman

Get your copy of The Cookbook Collector at Vroman's, Powell's or Amazon.

Alexander McCall Smith does it again.

Alexander McCall Smith has been successful with “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” and “The Isabel Dalhouse Series”; but here he inaugurates a new series with

Corduroy Mansions

Corduroy Mansions (353 pages, Pantheon, $24.95) is the title of a block of flats in the not terribly fashionable Pimlico section of London. This is the hub of Alexander McCall Smith’s new fictional community. To list the characters is to give at least an inkling of how this witty and generous work manages to engage us (even, perhaps, in spite of ourselves).

William, a mild, middle-aged wine merchant, lives with his increasingly annoying twenty-something son Eddie on the top floor of the jokingly but appropriately named Corduroy Mansions. Eddie is annoying primarily because he does not seem prepared to move out any time soon. William, as genial as he is in most situations, is really fed up that Eddie can’t begin to set up on his own.

William's neighbors and friends are a wonderful cast of characters. Primary among his admirers is Marcia, a classy caterer, who thinks William is just about perfect as a companion, and she even thinks he would do quite well as a husband. She sets herself the challenge of working her way into William’s good graces as well as his apartment. To get the room she wants, of course, she has to oust Eddie; but she seems singularly ready to take on that process and to win William’s gratitude in the process.

The other tenants in the building include three young girls, about Eddie’s age, who share the first floor flat. Dee is a health food and vitamin guru, who believes in various herbal cures and vitamin regimens. In fact, she is trying to persuade her young employee Martin that he should allow her to administer a colonic irrigation.

Jenny is personal assistant to an odious Liberal Democrat member of Parliament called Oedipus Snark. Since every Oedipus must at least have a mother, this one has a mother who is a psychotherapist and hates her son so much that she is writing his scandalous biography.

Oedipus has a girlfriend, Barbara, a literary agent, whom he irritates to the point that she breaks up with him as dramatically as she can. This annoys him in turn, and he tries to get back at women by firing Jenny and exposing one of Barbara's professional secrets. Barbara, though, quickly finds herself in the midst of another relationship, with a dazzling and mysterious guy called Hugh. Her friends hated Oedipus, of course, but they are suspicious about Hugh too, and she is hard pressed to persuade them that she hasn’t made another terrible mistake.

Caroline, the third roommate, a beautiful and rather sophisticated student of Art History, has something for her friend James, another student in her graduate program. But James is gay, or at least he has been gay, but he has recently started to think that maybe he is straight. This certainly gives Caroline some ideas.

Last, but by no means least, there is the so-called Pimlico terrier, Freddie Le Hay. Freddie is introduced by Marcia as a way to get Eddie out of the way—Eddie hates dogs—but he has too much personality for that. He wins William’s heart right away, and he comes close to stealing the show from Marcia herself. What happens with Freddie is truly amusing.

This is Alexander McCall Smith at his best. The ending is wonderfully positive and generous. This novel can put anyone but the most curmudgeonly in a great mood. I’ve read it while camping in an RV. It is just what the doctor ordered!

Alexander McCall Smith

Pick up a copy of Corduroy Mansions at Vroman's, Powell's or Amazon.