There’s an apparently insignificant but very telling scene in Alexander McCall Smith’s new novel, which finds the hero, Paul Stuart, a Scottish food writer on assignment to Tuscany, sitting at a pavement cafe in Montalcino, drinking coffee with the local schoolteacher, Onesto. The pair are discussing the Futurists, their philosophy in general and their approach to food in particular. Onesto admits that, in his youth, he found it all very exciting. “Well, it must have been,” responds Paul. “Everything they proposed was against the established order. They stood things on their head, and when you’re at that age, that can be attractive.”
On reading this passage, those already familiar with McCall Smith’s work might allow themselves a small smile: here, surely, is the author – a man famed for his mild, live-and-let-live world view – expressing his own thoughts and feelings through one of his characters. The subtext to Paul’s statement, after all, appears to be this: radical ideas are all very well when you’re young, but with age comes the wisdom to appreciate the maxim, “moderation in all things”.
That said, however, while My Italian Bulldozer certainly advocates a kind, considerate, some might even say old-fashioned approach to resolving affairs of the heart, it also succeeds in subtly, almost imperceptibly ripping up the traditional rules of the romantic comedy and creating something refreshingly original. Sometimes, then, perhaps standing things on their head can be OK, provided the things you are up-ending are immoderate to begin with, and provided the up-ending process is carried out with moderation.
When we first meet Paul, the successful but endearingly unsure-of-himself author of several books about food and wine, he has just been dumped by his partner of four years, Becky, who has run off with Tommy, her musclebound personal trainer. Paul’s editor Gloria does her best to console him, and in the opening scenes it becomes apparent that she might one day like to be more than simply his editor, although there is little indication that Paul thinks of her as anything other than a colleague and confidant.
Travelling to Italy to finish his new book on Tuscan cuisine, Paul has a nightmarish experience at the airport car hire desk (nightmarish even by the standards of typical airport car hire desk interactions) and ends up, for reasons too deliciously farcical to go into here, driving a bulldozer all the way from Pisa to Montalcino. This whimsical development serves the narrative function of both literally and metaphorically altering Paul’s perspective: the limited speed of the bulldozer forces him to slow down and take in his surroundings at a stately, almost meditative pace, and his elevated position offers some unique insights, allowing him to see things most drivers cannot.
In Montalcino, Paul soon becomes absorbed in various small-town intrigues, and he gives the local gossips something to talk about himself when he forms a connection with an already-attached American art historian called Anna, then receives awkward overlapping visits from Becky and Gloria. The ensuing love hexagram is eventually resolved, but probably not in a way you will expect – assuming, of course, that those expectations are based on the conventional outcomes of romantic comedies. A gentle book, but also a gently radical one. n