Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 24, 2010

Edinburgh Soap Opera

44 Scotland Street (2004-2008), Alexander McCall Smith, 5 vols.

About a year ago, I was in Vienna with some time on my hands, so I visited the British Bookshop (on Weihburggasse, just a few minutes’ walk from the Stephansdom) to look for something new. It was there that I discovered this series.

I’d read some of McCall Smith’s Ladies’ Detective Agency books, liked his writing, and the first book of this series looked enticing, so I bought it. When I finished it, I raced back for the next three, and then a friend in London sent me the last one for Christmas 2009.

These books began as a series published in The Scotsman; the first 100+ episodes were so popular (and the author enjoyed writing them so much) that another began, and then another… enough to eventually fill five volumes.

Much like a soap opera, readers got daily installments taking them through intense moments in the lives of several characters living in and around Edinburgh’s New Town. But unlike most soap operas, this one had a sense of humor, and we’re lucky that McCall Smith decided to collect and publish them.

Of course there are the soap-opera-like overlapping plot lines that run through several episodes — is a certain painting a real Peploe? is someone having an affair with her child’s therapist? who is the coffee shop’s owner’s secret love? how will the painter’s lost dog be recovered? and what horrifying event is the anthropologist about to witness in the South China Sea? This trip to South Asia is perhaps the literary equivalent of jumping the shark, but no matter. We’re like voyeurs, peering into windows at night to see what’s happening on the stages of people’s living rooms. And even though their lives aren’t full of melodrama, I still found myself enthralled.

There’s Pat, our heroine for the first two novels (she then fades into the background before disappearing entirely), unsure of her future and on her own for a while, looking for love in all the wrong places. There’s Bruce, narcissistic and shallow (is that redundant?) but so good-looking that some people are willing to overlook his drawbacks. There’s Irene, a pushy mother, and her son, poor six-year-old Bertie who plays a saxophone that’s taller than he is and speaks Italian, but dreads his weekly visits to his therapist. There’s that therapist, who spends more time talking shop with Irene than talking therapy with Bertie).

Major and minor characters cross paths and take us to museums, galleries, restaurants, wine merchants, real estate offices, and dozens of other venues.

As with all truly good soap operas, you get caught up in the lives of these people. You want to slap Irene, rescue Bertie, smash a custard pie into Bruce’s face, and introduce Pat to the guy who lives down your own hall and who’d be perfect for her.

McCall Smith includes just enough of Edinburgh — of its streets and old buildings, its art scene, coffee shops, and parks — to whet your appetite for a long visit to that beautiful city. And if you do go, perhaps you’ll be lucky, like Bertie, and spot Ian Rankin somewhere. Just be discrete and move along. No need to disturb the man.

44 Scotland Street, Expresso Tales, Love Over Scotland, The World According to Bertie, The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

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