There’s an apparently insignificant but very telling scene in Alexander McCall Smith’s new novel, which finds the hero, Paul Stuart, a food writer on assignment to Tuscany, sitting at a pavement cafe in Montalcino, drinking coffee with the local schoolteacher, Onesto, and discussing the Futurists. 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. 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.
When we first meet Paul, he has just been dumped by his partner of four years, Becky. 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.
Travelling to Italy to finish his new book, Paul has a nightmarish experience at the airport car hire desk 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.
In Montalcino, Paul gives the local gossips something to talk about 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. A gentle book, but also a gently radical one.