- - Thursday, April 13, 2017



By Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon, $25.95, 240 pages

Only a few authors would embark on a book about a writer “lumbering” through Italy while driving a bulldozer.

Perhaps even fewer would be successful, and certainly Alexander McCall Smith is one of them. One of the most prolific of writers and one of the most charming, he bounces through this happy pilgrimage, which is a mixture of his own gentle philosophy, recipes, romance and how to park a bulldozer when your rental car doesn’t show up.

The plot is more of a vignette focused on a chapter in the life of Paul Stewart, a food and wine specialist who takes off for Italy to write another book and to lick his romantic wounds imposed by abandonment by his wife Becky, who runs off with her trainer. His adviser and manager is Gloria, who encourages him on his safari to the idyllic Italian town of Montalcino to complete an overdue cookbook project and cheer him up.

It all begins with the kind of hilarious disaster peculiar to this author when Paul finds he has no rental car at the airport and sees his plans disappearing in a cloud of incompetent Italian bureaucracy exacerbated by a bumptious airline agent who insists he has stolen the missing car.

He is rescued by a friendly Italian professor whom he met on his plane and who solves his problem with the unlikely solution of a bulldozer. Paul has never driven a bulldozer, but that does not prevent him from trying, and he finds it a fascinating experience — especially since the elevated location of the driver’s seat gives him a better view of other drivers and the lovely countryside. He makes friends as he rumbles along, including a woman with whom he decides he has fallen in love on the basis of a brief and unexpected meeting. He intrigues all he meets because of his unusual mode of travel and his book goes well. Then Becky arrives, announcing she wants to talk, without necessarily giving up on her trainer lover whom she continues to find more interesting than poor Paul.

To further complicate matters, Gloria shows up to protect her favorite author with whom, not surprising, she is in love. It takes a while for Paul and Gloria to sort themselves out, but that provides an opportunity for Mr. McCall Smith to indulge in his favorite hobby of philosophizing about food, travel and how people are really lovable once you get to know them and make allowances for them. He even persuades a gloomy priest to confide in the receptive Paul in between sipping a new wine and literally cooking up new recipes for his book

This is the kind of book you can dip into and be grateful for. Even the bulldozer is rather charming once Paul learns to manipulate it through the winding paths of romantic Italy. It is a bonus that he also reaches the conclusion that he is better off without Becky and has discovered what he has been missing in Gloria.

Perhaps the indefatigable Mr. McCall Smith might have given us more of plot development this time around because so much of the book is focused on descriptions of the Italian landscape, which is understandable. But there may be too much of Italy and too little of Paul, who becomes something of a cipher as characters blend into more characters, and it is not credible that he becomes so quickly enamored of a lady so deeply involved with someone else. Especially when the other man turns out to be burdened by a very obvious disfigurement. Which, of course, makes poor Paul feel guilty and makes the reader wonder about the woman who professes herself so devoted to her lover yet so apparently vulnerable to another attraction to a total stranger. The accent of the picnic held by the three of them is almost clumsy, which is most unlike the author’s style.

It is rare that he stumbles, but it weakens the plot. Nevertheless, the book is a cozy read.

Romance, a book and a bulldozer

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

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