A Lighthearted Side of Scotland

The Bertie Project     Alexander McCall Smith     (2016)

The universe of readers of novels in English divides into those who can’t stand Alexander McCall Smith and those who can’t wait for the next installment from him. I’m in the latter camp.

The Bertie Project is the eleventh book in McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street Series (see list below). Interestingly, the chapters of all the 44 Scotland Street books have first appeared in serialized form in the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman. This publishing approach constrains McCall Smith’s chapter length and requires that each chapter have a cliffhanger, although the cliff is usually more like a small berm in your backyard.

Scotland Street is a real thoroughfare in Edinburgh, but #44 is fictional. In this multi-family building of flats, which are kind of like American condos, McCall Smith follows the lives of the inhabitants. Some of them are ordinary citizens, like Pat MacGregor (a young art student who goes to work in a gallery) and Stuart Pollock (a statistician with the Scottish government) and Domenica MacDonald (a wise anthropologist). Others are caricatures so inflated that the reader marvels that they don’t simply burst. These include Bruce Anderson (a twenty-something narcissist obsessed with personal care products), Irene Pollock (a domineering mother obsessed with the writings of Melanie Klein), and the identical triplet sons of Matthew and Elspeth Duncan.

Even when some of these denizens of 44 Scotland Street move to other residences, McCall Smith keeps an eye on their activities. And over the course of the series, Cyril, a beer-swilling dog with a gold tooth, moves into 44 Scotland Street. McCall Smith skewers affectation wherever he finds it.

The star of the entire 44 Scotland Street Series is undoubtedly Bertie Pollock, who starts out as a precocious five year old and ages very slowly toward seven. I seldom laugh out loud when I’m reading a novel, but pronouncements from young Bertie can be so hilarious that I have to stop reading to wipe the tears of laughter from my eyes. Bertie is forced by his shrew of a mother, Irene, to take lessons in Italian and saxophone and yoga. He’s dressed by her in pink overalls that embarrass him. He’s hauled off to psychotherapy sessions even though his mental health is excellent. I keep hoping that someone will rescue poor, sweet Bertie. McCall Smith dangles that possibility in front of his readers repeatedly throughout the series, notably in The Bertie Project.

Here’s one of McCall Smith’s descriptions from The Bertie Project:  “Why could Bertie not be left alone to grow up in the way that suited him? He was, after all, a particularly appealing little boy, free from any discernible character defects, obliging, gentle, and, most remarkably, utterly without guile . . . He described the world exactly as he saw it; he expressed in a completely open way the thoughts that went through his mind; if asked what he was doing or thinking he answered in a way that concealed nothing, held nothing back.” (168)

I can’t tell you too much more about The Bertie Project without spoilers. Bertie and his family are prominent. Bruce the Narcissist acquires a new girlfriend, an Australian. Matthew and Elspeth have nanny troubles.

As if a many-stranded plot with a large cast of characters isn’t enough for the 44 Scotland Street novels, McCall Smith adds complaints about the grim Scottish weather, encomiums to his beloved city of Edinburgh, digs about Glasgow, analyses of Scottish visual arts, criticisms of bad grammar, digressions on the history of Scotland, and opinions on the tensions between Scotland and England, both medieval and modern. I find most of these tangential peregrinations amusing, the one exception being the story line about Scottish nudist societies . . .  In any case, as you embark on each chapter, you never know where you’ll end up.

Maybe the unpredictability is why some people hate McCall Smith’s novels, or maybe some readers dislike his sense of Scottish superiority. My Scottish heritage probably biases me toward the books, because I also enjoy the other McCall Smith series set in Edinburgh: the thirteen Isabel Dalhousie novels. Isabel is a philosopher who edits a journal on applied ethics and solves local mysteries. She’s also an unintentional cougar. Watch for my blog post on this series in the future.

McCall Smith’s best known novels are The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, seventeen charming books set in Botswana and starring detective Precious Ramotswe. Two other McCall Smith series are Corduroy Mansions and Portuguese Irregular Verbs; these are less successful, I think, but worth reading if you’re a true fan.

Check out Alexander McCall Smith to determine if you're a fan or a detractor! Here are all the books in the 44 Scotland Street Series: 44 Scotland Street (2004), Espresso Tales (2005), Love Over Scotland (2006), The World According to Bertie (2007), The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (2008), The Importance of Being Seven (2010), Bertie Plays the Blues (2011), Sunshine on Scotland Street (2012), Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers (2013), The Revolving Door of Life (2015), The Bertie Project (2016).