Love and marriage, freedom and loneliness, and risk and misadventure are some of the themes in the latest instalment of prolific, bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith’s delightfully witty 44 Scotland Street series.
The Bertie Project, the eleventh novel in the immensely popular series focused on the lives of a small community of people inhabiting a somewhat Bohemian corner of Edinburgh’s New Town, finds many of the streets best-loved residents buffeted by the winds of change.
When Irene Pollock, hectoring wife of meek Stuart and domineering mother of Bertie, a precocious seven-year-old, returns after a prolonged stay in the Middle East where she ran a book club in a Bedouin harem, it sparks a desire for drastic change in those around her.
Her long-suffering husband, trapped in a loveless marriage, grows ever more exasperated by Irene’s intolerance and dominance and finally comes to the realisation he is ‘married to a fascist.’ Although not by design, he finds himself drawn to another woman, a ‘beautiful, intriguing woman’ with a scholarly devotion to 20th century Scottish poetry. Filled with hope, desire and courage, he feels ready to escape and commit fully to this exciting new relationship.
Meanwhile, Irene’s son, weary of what his mother terms ‘the Bertie Project’ – an ‘unremitting programme of psychotherapy, yoga, and intense tutoring in everything’ – expresses a desire to move out of Scotland Street altogether and asks his paternal grandmother Nicola if he can live with her.
Nicola, whose own marriage is in tatters (her Portuguese husband has fallen in love with his maid and is about to file for divorce), learns that her son is having an affair and is filled with ‘unalloyed joy’ that Stuart may be about to make a break for freedom. She has known for some time that all was not well with her son’s marriage and, given that she despises the ‘dreadful virago’ he married, is only too delighted to facilitate his affair.
Meanwhile, Stuart isn’t the only one embarking on a new romance. Twenty-seven-year-old Bruce Anderson, the ever-preening narcissist who is as accustomed to female adoration as he is to the breaking of female hearts, has at long last fallen in love, apparently for the first time.
In fact, he is so inexorably and helplessly enamoured with an Australian girl named Clare Hodding that he allows himself to be transformed into a new man – one able to ‘listen to women’ and ‘feel for women’ and, seemingly, dress how they want him to dress (no matter how tight the trousers).
Unfortunately, the girl of his dreams also happens to be a magnet for misfortune. Negligent conduct has cost her a place at university, and recent hot-headed remarks have tarnished her career. Undaunted, Bruce throws caution to the wind. But no sooner is he on the verge of becoming betrothed than he finds himself precariously poised between happiness and catastrophe.
Through a variety of inventive ways, McCall Smith interconnects various storylines and lures his well-drawn characters out of their upmarket homes and into each other’s bustling lives. Very much character driven and down-to-earth, the society presented in 44 Scotland Street feels like a community of warm-hearted people who have genuine concern for the fate of those around them, something that anthropologist resident Domenica Macdonald would surely be pleased to hear.
With its sharp, worldly wise humour, interesting personal tales and fine array of charming characters eager to engage in insightful conversation, The Bertie Project is never less than extremely entertaining and highly addictive. Long may the series continue…
(Anchor Books, paperback, £11.99)