On Thursday, I read 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith. It had been almost a week since I had gotten my self-prescribed dosage of fiction and I was feeling imaginatively anemic. This book was just what the doctor (a.k.a. I myself) ordered. I was first introduced to Alexander McCall Smith by an audio version of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I knew I would like his writing style; unfortunately, we were driving late at night to Ohio and needed something more fast-paced to keep us awake. So, I plan to finish reading that one now, especially after I enjoyed 44 Scotland Street so much.
Smith originally wrote 44 Scotland Street as a serial for The Scotsman newspaper. So, the chapters are all very brief-- 3 or 4 pages in which he tells he tells little life snippets of the inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street and their neighbors and colleagues. The style reminds me of literary bumper cars, where one chapter's main character bumps into another character and that chapter ends and a new one changes to that second character’s point of view.
Well, Smith begins the story with the apartment-searching endeavors of 20 year old Pat—a sweet, artsy, second year gap student (for some ignominious reason we never discover). She meets Bruce, the handsome rugby player, a bit too preoccupied with his clove-scented hair gel, obliques, and full-length bathroom mirror. He leases the room in his apartment at 44 Scotland Street to the aforementioned Pat, who already has a vague job at an art gallery working for the diffident and nonchalant Matthew. Along the way, Pat meets their curious and wise anthropologist neighbor, Domenica. She is also introduced to poor little Bertie—the 5 year old boy forced to learn Italian, read W.H. Auden instead of A.A. Milne, and play a saxophone as big as him by his thoroughly modern mother, Irene, rabidly convinced of her son’s superlatives. And these are just a sampling of Smith’s fascinatingly ordinary characters.
I would say that’s the loveliness of this little book—it’s filled with charm, wit, irony, kindness, wisdom, and utter ordinariness. It’s nothing special. It could be any old apartment with any neighbors. It could be my apartment building. And this is a quiet brilliance because it evokes something like, “Maybe those people who are my next door neighbors are just as interesting and odd and well, even wonderful as those people."
What I will remember from this delightful book is a moment with Pat and Matthew, her art gallery boss, as they are standing in front of a painting. I think it encapsulates the perspective of the book:
Pat looked at him, and noticed the way that the hairs lay flat against the skin of his wrist, and the way that one of his eyebrows was slightly shorter than the other, as if it had been shaved off. And she noticed, too, his eyes, which she had never really looked at before and the way the irises were flecked with gray. And Matthew, for his part, suddenly noticed that Pat had small ears, and that one of them had two piercings. For a few moments neither spoke, as each felt sympathy for the other, as the same conclusion—quite remarkably—occurred to each: here is a person, another, who is so important to himself, to herself, and so weak, and ordinary, and human as we all are. (210)