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Onyx reviews: The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith

Of such trivial and ordinary incidents is life composed. A young boy joins the Cub Scouts and suffers the unwanted attentions of a classmate who fancies herself his girlfriend. A woman suspects her neighbor has pilfered her blue Spode china tea cup and concocts a scheme to get it back. A young couple embark on a new life together as husband and wife. The owner of an art shop acquires a potentially important and valuable painting with a sketchy provenance. A man must deal with the repercussions of his dog's roving eye. A vain man's rise in social status ends when he discovers that his fiancée has been stringing him along. A woman must make a difficult decision when her boyfriend's obsession with political conspiracies approaches madness.

The books of the 44 Scotland Street series—this is the fifth—are written as a daily serial for a Scottish newspaper, which means that the chapters are all the same length. The end result isn't so much a novel as a collection of incidents, reminiscent of a British TV serial like EastEnders or Coronation Street. Plots emerge and are resolved, with no single storyline lasting the entire span of the book. Crises arise and are dealt with. The characters live unremarkable lives, for the most part. The biggest problem in Angus Lordie's life at the moment is the box containing six puppies—the progeny of his faithful companion Cyril, the dog with the gold tooth and an unhealthy fascination for the ankles of Angus's friends—that is delivered to his door. Of all the incidents that transpire in The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, this is the one that has the least rewarding outcome. McCall hints that the man who takes the puppies off Angus's hands had some nefarious design on the animals, but readers never discover if that was the case. Such is life.

Matthew marries former teacher Elspeth Harmony and takes an adventure-filled honeymoon in Perth, Australia, where he has an unusual and unsettling encounter with a dolphin and is almost incarcerated. On their way back to Edinburgh, they stop off in Singapore, where Matthew makes a disturbing discovery about his family. Back home, he takes possession of a painting that he attributes to one of Scotland's most famous portrait artists, and the subject is also a Scottish national treasure. The fact that the painting came from a known Glaswegian mobster and is probably stolen complicates matters.

Elspeth's former students, six year olds with unusual names like Tofu and Hiawatha, have their own small scale adventures. Bertie's overbearing mother Irene (described as a "cow" by some) continues to drag her son to weekly psychotherapy sessions, while his father sits passively by, unable even to recall where he parked the family car. Bertie makes a startling and unwelcome observation about the resemblance between his younger brother, Ulysses, and his former therapist. However, that man has pried himself free from Edinburgh for an endowed chair in Aberdeen, which has Irene in a tizzy. Bertie's father, perhaps for the first time in their marriage, defies Irene and allows Bertie to enroll in the Cub Scouts, an organization Irene regards with suspicion.

While on a Cub Scout outing, Bertie has a amusing encounter with Ian Rankin, who is the victim of a crime. Bertie and his friends act as Baker Street Irregulars, helping Rankin resolve the affair while poking some inside jokes at the crime author along the way (one of his books is seen in a used bookshop window on offer for a mere £1). These are highly precocious youngsters, and their dialog and thought processes at time seem a tad too advanced for their age.

The books in this series are steeped in Edinburgh culture, history and lore. In his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, McCall Smith usually takes pains to explain references to readers unfamiliar with that part of the world. Not so here. McCall Smith mentions persons and events in ways that will render entire chapters incomprehensible to readers unfamiliar with them. Anyone who doesn't know about Jacobites, who believe that the current monarchy is illegitimate and that the Stuarts are the true heirs to the throne, will likely be confused by the sections involving Big Lou, whose boyfriend is currently hosting a "pretender" to the throne.

Other references that will likely be unfamiliar to people outside the U.K. include mention of Watsonians (fans of a British football club) and the illegality of calling something marmalade if it contains anything other than citrus fruit. When some characters are on stage, the text is littered with Scottish brogue that will challenge the ear and the understanding of the casual reader who isn't up on his Robert Burns (words like "clype," for example).

As with his Botswana novels, McCall Smith includes very little serious crime in the 44 Scotland Street books. If these were crime novels they would be called cozies. The resolution of the theft of the blue Spode tea cup will be as familiar as the punch line of an old joke. Though Lard O'Connor is a mobster of some repute, and veiled threats are made about the disposition of his painting, that's about as dangerous as things get.

The anecdotes are bolstered by ruminations by various characters, who wax philosophical about the nature of life. These aren't diatribes or lectures but rather pithy homilies that rise organically from the events that inspired such reflection.  McCall Smith has beliefs about the way people should live and behave, themes that he raises again and again in his novels. Issues of character and manners and friendship and country. The Edinburgh of his novels is a vastly sunnier and rosier place than the city depicted in the books of Ian Rankin, for example. 

This philosophy is reflected in the brief discussion of scones that gives rise to the book's title. Angus criticizes Big Lou's scones as being "sturdy," whereas he is of the opinion that in Edinburgh "people prefer, perhaps, a slightly lighter scone." He goes on to say that a scone can "never be too light," perhaps fending off in advance any criticism that the same might be said of his own books.


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