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Onyx reviews: Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith

Readers of Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series will find themselves in familiar territory in Corduroy Mansions. The cast of characters is different, and the apartment complex is located in London instead of Edinburgh, but the concept is the same. Take a batch of interesting people and aim a camera at their lives. Their stories are interesting, but the dilemmas are not matters of life and death. They are simple stories of love and employment and pet ownership.

William French is a wine merchant who has problems at home. His twenty-four-year-old son, Eddie, shows no signs of moving out and William's patience is running thin. He concocts passive-aggressive schemes. Eddie, who tends to speak in newspaper headlines, dislikes dogs, so William takes part in a dog-sharing agreement with a newspaper columnist. The "temporary dog" in question is Freddie de la Haye, a Pimlico Terrier supposedly a vegetarian, though time will prove to William that Freddie's dietary curiosity has no limits. When the dog gambit doesn't pay off, William escalates, inviting his friend Marcia to move in, not realizing that Marcia has designs on William. He's not sure that he's better off with the new status quo.

Four young women share an apartment on the ground floor, each with unique quandaries. Caroline, who is working on a Masters degree in Fine Arts at Sotheby's, is unclear about her relationship with classmate James. The young man is suddenly uncertain about his sexuality—he's no longer sure that he's gay and may have feelings for Caroline. Caroline is also guarding a secret—her picture was once featured in Rural Living in a section normally reserved for young women fishing for husbands.

Jenny, a graduate of the London School of Economics, is personal assistant to an odious Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament with the unlikely name of Oedipus Snark. One of the benefits of her position is that she has ample free time that Snark lets her use as she wishes. However, she has to run interference for him when he makes arbitrary changes to his schedule. Snark shows his true colors when he dismisses her by text message, complete with frowny faces.

This isn't the only change in Snark's life. His longtime girlfriend, Barbara Ragg, a literary agent, has an epiphany about their relationship and bolts during their vacation in Rye. (A sub-sub-sub-plot involves the latest manuscript Barbara is representing—a supposed biography of the abominable snowman.) Barbara is prepared to swear off men when she meets a young man in the parking lot and does the unimaginable: she gives him a ride back to London. Soon they are living together. Life's like that.

Snark is uniformly disliked. Even his mother, Berthea, can't stand him. She is currently writing a tell-all exposé about her son while attempting to keep her somewhat vacuous brother from killing himself through ineptitude. Terence Moongroove has been driving the same car for forty years, making frequent calls to the auto club whenever the vehicle breaks down—often because he's neglected to put petrol in the tank. When the battery dies, he almost electrocutes himself by hooking the battery up to a live wire. Berthea's fears are amplified when Terence trades in his Morris Traveler for a Porche, a car that—to his amazement—can go faster than 40 mph. He's never had to pay attention to speed limits before because, with the Morris, such matters were purely theoretical.

There are adventures involving Belgian shoes and a possibly stolen painting by Poussin, changes of employment, the baking of lemon squares, dog fights, and sacred dance. None of it would make the evening news, but it's all part of the substance of life. Things that make people happy, irate, satisfied or sad. 

Like McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street novels, Corduroy Mansions is a collection of vignettes and the journeys are more important than the destinations. The pleasure of books like this is the time spent with these endearing characters, most of whom are well meaning and kind. Some of the plots and subplots have complete arcs with a satisfactory resolution, others simply meander on from Point A to Point G and ultimately peter out, exactly the way things do in real life.

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