- - Wednesday, August 10, 2016



By Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon, $26. 256 pages

It is Sister Flora’s first day in the world outside the walls of the convent where she has lived for 10 years, and she has cheerful plans to spend the money she inherited from her uncle and to find a husband.

Perhaps only Alexander McCall Smith could have used his inimitable brand of gentle charm to so introduce the beginning of such a new life and, even more unlikely, leave the impression that it will have a happy ending. Mr. McCall Smith’s philosophy imbues his books and his characters, and Sister Flora is one of his best. The reader’s only complaint with this book is that it doesn’t follow the former nun into the world beyond the walls of her Order, and allow her tell her life story. Yet in the first 50 pages, he paints a warm picture of the 32-year-old woman who has concluded that what she has been doing for a decade is not what she wants to do all her life and she admits it. On her first day out, as it were, armed with money from her legacy, she marches into a well-known department store in Edinburgh and buys a red dress, an Italian handbag and a violet hat. There is something irresistible about the violet hat. Then she goes for lunch at a fashionable restaurant and meets two new friends, both women, who are fascinated by her, understandably, when she confides that she was a teaching nun and she is now embarking on a new life and is looking for a man.

Their reaction is a mixture of surprise and approval. And by the time Flora has settled into a hotel on her second day, she has an engagement with a man whom she met at lunch. You are left to guess the ultimate outcome of their acquaintance, but you can.

This is one of Mr. McCall Smith’s more unusual literary ventures and is presented as a literal framework for a miniature book of old-fashioned photographs of, as the author puts it, people from the past. From Sister Flora he moves on to couples and adolescents and wartime. He notes that while the black-and-white photographs are real, the people in them are not. The photographs, in the author’s skilled hands become real. He suggests that all of the stories focus on love and its strength. Again, this is the McCall Smith philosophy at full strength. There is Eddie, the son who doesn’t really want to leave home. He likes living with his parents and he is fascinated by Pelmanism. But he also loves conjuring tricks and with the tactful urging of his father, he takes his talents to a circus, which he loves.

Eddie becomes friends with the human cannon ball and a ventriloquist, and when a fire destroys the ventriloquist’s doll, he has the idea of a human taking its place on the lap of the performer. The idea is a great success and becomes the basis for a romance. As usual, the author glides between human weaknesses. There is the developing tragedy of the adolescent who impregnates Jenny, a young woman of considerable self-confidence, then disappears into the nightmare of imprisonment in a sadistic Japanese prison camp in Malaya. He is inexplicably rejected by the woman who has become his wife. This is a story that goes beyond poignant, especially when the self-sacrificing David never abandons his unpredictable love. As the author assesses him, “He wanted to believe in tenderness.” And clearly so does the author.

And there is the gentle vignette about the suitor who falls in love with a beautiful car and its beautiful driver. How he injects himself into her life is humorously touching in its involvement of two tacks he uses to puncture the tires of the automobile and marry her. The book is vintage McCall Smith and if anyone is looking for an early Christmas gift, they should look no further. A reader may wonder whether if there were no Alexander McCall Smith, he would have to be invented.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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