Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

Over the weekend, I read the new Alexander McCall Smith book, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate. (And, by the way, isn’t that a wonderful title? It puts me in a great mood just thinking about the cover of the book.) This is the second in the Sunday Philosophy Club series, and I loved it just as much as I love all Mr. McCall Smith’s other books. The characters and the way they talk and the things they say are so realistic. I especially related to how Isabel makes snap judgements about the people she comes in contact with and her responses when she is wrong. And I love her friendship with Jamie, the former boyfriend of her niece.

Last week I read a review in Entertainment Weekly about Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, and it gave the book a B-. If I may say so, I think the book was at least a B and I would probably give it a B+. Sure, it’s not a book that’s going to change the world, but it made me feel good to read it, which has to count for something. A few days after I read the review, I went to see Nancy Pearl, and one of the things she talked about was the four “doorways” through which a reader “enters” a book. Each book, she says, can be accessed through its characters, its setting, its story, or its language. Good books, books that have broad appeal over time, can be entered through more than one of those doorways, and in many cases can be entered through all four. Each reader has different preferences when it comes to reading books. Mike, for example, prefers to read books that focus on story and then character, while I like books that focus on character and then story. Books with dense language are often my downfall.

The reason I am mentioning all this is that, after reading Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, I started to wonder if EW hadn’t maybe chosen the wrong reviewer for the book. You see, this book, like all of Alexander McCall Smith’s books, is about the characters rather than being about what happens to them. It’s about one slightly nosy woman’s life in Edinburgh and how she deals with the ethical problems she encounters. There is a very slight mystery aspect to the story, but to focus on the mystery is to miss what the book is really about. And that’s where I feel the EW reviewer went wrong: he or she complained that the plot was very thin. It seemed to me that he or she was trying to enter the book through a doorway that’s not actually one of the book’s strengths without considering whether that was what the book had set out to do.

Do I think this book is for everyone? No I do not. But I think that a study of a character and how she responds to the things that happen to her, even if those things do not include cars blowing up or the secret love child of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, is a valid story to tell. And I think that Friends, Lovers, Chocolate is a good example – not the best, certainly, but a good example – of a book that focuses on its characters and does it well. If you are looking for more exciting things (which is certainly a valid pursuit), there are plenty of books I could recommend. But I don’t think this book should have to apologize for being something that it’s not, especially when it never claimed to be all that exciting to begin with.

And it’s nice to see that the things I learned last week have some interesting practical applications.

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