Alexander McCall Smith certainly knows how to reel in his target audience. What thirty year old female in search of an easy read, is going to bypass McCall’s latest book with its candy floss pink cover and seductive title: Friends, Lovers, Chocolate? Despite being on the right side of thirty, I held high hopes for this novel. Friends? Lovers? Chocolate? I like all of those things, hurrah!
Before you pigeon hole this book to the IQ-lowering chick-lit genre, it is worth knowing Mr McCall-Smith is a professor in Law, has received two special Booker citations, and his novels do not centre around a young single girl’s quest for Mr Perfect.
Friends, Lovers, Chocolate is the follow up novel of McCall Smith’s popular The Sunday Philosophy Club. Isabel Dalhousie, quirky intellectual and social philosopher, returns as the leading lady. While working in her niece’s delicatessen, Isabel meets Ian, a recent recipient of a heart transplant. Since the operation, Ian sees visions that do not belong to him, but to his donor. Unable to find a rational explanation, Ian accepts Isabel’s help to discover the meaning of his visions.
Isabel’s amateur sleuthing drives the story and has caused some critics to subscribe the novel as ‘detective fiction’.
But Friends, Lovers, Chocolate is not such a simple tale. The sideline relationships: Isabel’s jealously guarded friendship with a much younger musician, the appearance of a smooth Italian and her housekeeper’s love for a married man, really spark the readers’ interest. It’s these background events that prompt Isabel’s philosophical musings on friendship and love, which counterpoint her own relationships. These minor subplots are rarely resolved. But this only adds a touch of realism to the otherwise transparent and highly conventional ‘mystery’ plot line. The story is told from Isabel’s perspective.
Some readers have expressed agitation in the random wanderings of her stream of consciousness. However, this point of view truly exposes Isabel’s character, whose outward composure hides the continuous spiralling of her philosophical mind. McCall Smith does not portray a particularly loveable cast. Isabel largely resists emotional intimacy and possesses all the snobbery of an upper-class erudite. Her voice blends with the third person narration, so that both are precise, formal and a little too controlled to really evoke a human feel. As a result, I couldn’t help feeling McCall Smith was forgetting his audience and using his university lecturer voice.
Overall, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate is calm, poised and neatly constructed. It is a pleasant enough read, but generally lacklustre and severely undernourished the much promised chocolate.
ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH