Can there be many things better than reading 2 Alexander McCall Smith novels back to back?
One day “The Forgotten Affairs of Youth”.
The next day, “The Importance of being seven”.
The joys of being on holiday.
Both of these novels are set in Edinburgh, but in different parts of the city, and they both feature different social circles.
“The Importance of Being Seven” brings us up-to-date on the comings and goings of the group of people who love in 44 Scotland Street – neighbours, friends, even rivals at times – and their lives and loves.
Every single one of Mr. McCall Smith’s characters is a fully rounded, fleshed out, delightful individual in his or her own right, from Big Lou to the appallingly vain Bruce, from Matthew in his distressed oatmeal sweater to Cyril, the dog with a gold tooth and (in this book) a red spotted bandana.
But the undisputed star of “The Importance of Being Seven” is the articulate, well-read, Italian speaking, much put-upon Bertie, aged 6 and a half, but oh-so-longing to be seven.
This book is Bertie’s, and in his charming preface Mr. McCall Smith shares with us his affection for this little boy, and the fact that so many of us are on Bertie’s side, willing him on to escape from the clutches of his quite dreadful (though doubtlessly well-intentioned) mother Irene.
Poor (ghastly) Irene.
Who hasn’t met a version of this Dragon Mum in real life? Ruthlessly steering their child along the path the mother has chosen, no deviation allowed, cramming their young lives with a bewildering array of activities, leaving no time for play. And, in poor little Bertie’s case, certainly no place for crisps, chocolate or Irn-Bru.
My Irene was a breathtakingly ruthless Ballet Mum in Johannesburg, reliving her own cut-short-through-marriage-ballet-career through the lives of her pliant, ultra-obedient, quiet daughters.
My poor daughter never stood a chance of getting the lead in the annual concert. How could she, when Ballet Mum organized private classes for her daughters, and always secretly sewed on more ribbons and sequins than we had been told to? Her daughters always out-glittered and out-ribboned every other little girl.
But I digress, almost as though I were an Alexander McCall Smith character.
Pliancy – and Bertie’s inherent good manners – are what allow Irene to march this little fellow off to psychotherapy and yoga, and to force him to speak Italian, all of which he hates, but is too polite to refuse.
And then there’s baby Ulysses, he of the sticky-out ears, so unlike his father’s, but so like those of Bertie’s previous psychotherapist. Although not yet able to speak, Ulysses lets known his hatred of his mother, by vomiting all over her whenever she approaches him.
I have high hopes for baby Ulysses in future 44 Scotland Street books.
There are many funny bits in this book, that made me laugh out loud, which is always a wonderful moment when you read.
Such as this delicious conversation between Bertie and his new friend Andy, who leads such an exotic life in Bertie’s eyes – being allowed knives and Meccano and Irn-Bru, and with the promise of being allowed to stalk deer.
When he’s eight.
‘Do you have psycho therapy?’ Bertie asked Andy.
Andy shook his head. ‘We mostly have cattle’, he said.
Bertie nodded. ‘Yoga? Do you have to do yoga?’
Andy thought for a moment. ‘I like strawberry flavoured best.’
Dear little Bertie.
One does so hope that life will change dramatically for him when he turns seven, but to be honest, with friends like Olive and Tofu and Pansy and Hiawatha, his little future does look rather bleak.
There is love and pregnancy (and what a pregnancy) and manipulation and decency, and moments of joy in this delightful, beautifully crafted book.
Mr. McCall Smith is a master of elegant prose, of gentle humour and of great affection for his motley array of characters, including the one and only Cyril, who has the order of “cane-cavaliere” bestowed on him for…ah, but that would only spoil the pleasure of reading about Cyril’s adventures in Pisa.
And, by the way, whoever knew that Factor 40 sunscreen makes a good thinner for oil paints…
Published by Abacus, the paperback costs £7.99.
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