Erudite Mondays at Half Soled Boots
Volume 13 Number 2
by Alexander McCall Smith
I really wanted to love this book.
In the end, I'm not even sure I like it.
This is the first Alexander McCall Smith book I have read (he of the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency") so I don't know how it compares, but I was favourably impressed by his style. It has a certain distance from the reader...I didn't feel as if I was walking in their shoes, or sitting in their living rooms: I felt I was hovering over their houses, detached from the characters, their situations, and even from the passage of time. Sometimes you want to be right in the thick of the narrative, feeling what the characters feel, and sometimes you want to experience the story with a little more elegance.
It started out so well. The author announces, right on the first page, that the novel is about unrequited love. He claims to be exploring this idea that there is no "one person" to whom we are bound, and with whom, if we can only find them, we will have a complete life - will be a whole person.
90% of the novel works to support this premise. The characters circle each other in a decades-long dance of attraction and repulsion, while we await further developments. Time flies in this book: one turns a page, and find that years have passed. Over the course of the novel, the reader comes to believe that He does not love Her - this has the undeniable ring of truth and the undeniable proof of events, dialogue, even body language. All the choices the male character makes are away from the girl who loves him.
Just as one is thinking "well, that's the meaning of 'unrequited'", a curve ball arrives. Suddenly, literally on the last two or three pages of the book, the author does a complete 180, and has his annoying leading man (up until now the wishy-washiest of noncommittal losers) suddenly declare undying and forever love for the woman who has waited all this time for him to realize her existence.
What the heck?
In one fell swoop (or "foul sweep", as I see on the internet constantly), all the credibility disappears. The author's whole point, everything he has been working towards, the evidence of the reader's own experience, is chucked out in order to provide a pat happy ending.
The events of the story, the characters themselves, just don't support this conclusion. I'm left wondering whether the author had originally intended a very different ending than the one he actually wrote. Nine times out of ten, life just doesn't turn out like that: the letter doesn't get delivered in time, the prince finds someone else who fits the glass slipper, and young starry-eyed women, formerly models of constancy, get tired of waiting on balconies for their clueless, idealized lovers, and marry the grocer just so they can get on with it.
I expect this novel will do well on the shelves of local drugstores, so people can pick up a copy while they are getting sunscreen and flip flops on their way to the beach. It's just the kind of thing people like to read to distract themselves momentarily while working on their base tan, or waiting in the middle school parking lot. I know this kind of book sells well, but in my opinion the ending undermined both the novel's premise, and the reader's investment in the characters. With the Disneyfied conclusion, the whole thing became forgettable.
Recommend to Others? No.