Fans of Alexander McCall Smith will be familiar with the feel of his new novel if not the cast of characters. Some, however, may have met the protagonist already as this book is the second in a series featuring food writer Paul Stewart. The first, My Italian Bulldozer, was set in Tuscany and was billed as “a Tuscan holiday you can have at home”. Following Paul from Edinburgh to Provence, on what he hopes will be a writing retreat and an escape from relationship problems, The Second Worst Restaurant In France has a similar vacation feel, although the peaceful village of Saint Vincent de la Colline turns out to be anything but.
The cousin who invited him, the oft-married and charismatic Chloe, leads something of a mysterious double life. His eccentric twin landladies, meanwhile, involve him with the petty politics of the village and as a food expert he is eventually asked to rescue the appalling eatery of the title.
A talentless chef and his ambitious nephew, the gossips in the bakery and a sloppy pregnant waitress with a missing baby father round out a colourful cast, and while on the surface the narrative appears to be driven by frivolous fallings-out and trivial goings-on, in true McCall Smith style, there are deeper questions revealed in conversations between characters.
Chloe and Paul discuss political correctness. Paul believes that referring to “benighted cultures” implies a sense of superiority. Chloe argues that any culture that disagrees with slavery is demonstrably superior to one that allows it.
Paul, as a food writer, is introspective in the land of culinary grandeur: “Should one be serious about culinary traditions, about recipes, about gourmet matters, in a world where for many the main issue with food was simply getting enough to survive?”
These philosophical musings on important questions, coupled with deft wit, set McCall Smith apart from other popular authors. That said, this isn’t one of his finest books. With his rate of output there are bound to be some that you prefer, and I couldn’t warm to these characters in the way that I have, instantly, to Mma Ramotswe, Isabel Dalhousie or Detective Varg. The descriptions of provincial French life and particularly French food – once the restaurant has improved – are delicious. But the story feels flimsy and the author’s ability to nail the characters with just a few flourishes seems strangely lacking. Fortunately, McCall Smith on an off day still compares very well to the average. - Kirsty McLuckie
The Second Worst Restaurant in France, by Alexander McCall Smith, Polygon, £14.99