I saw this at the library recently, and picked it up because it was by Alexander McCall Smith. The premise, that four strangers on a train share their stories, seemed to offer interesting possibilities. The quote on the back cover, “The best thing McCall Smith has written so far,” was good enough for me to check the book out.
I first heard of McCall Smith over a decade ago, when he had written the first two books of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, and decided – based on a number of positive reviews – to buy them. I found the first book moderately interesting, certainly a change from the sort of detective novels I was used to.
The cases were not the focus of the novel, and Mma Ramotswe is very different from any detective, male or female, in novels I had read previously. And it was interesting to see what life in Botswana was like, a country that I had barely heard of before. But somehow I found my interest flagging as I read the second book, and I honestly don’t remember whether I finished it. When we moved, ten years ago, I think I put those books in a box destined for storage rather than a bookshelf.
I have thought, now and then, of picking up another book in the series, or trying one of McCall Smith’s other series. But there were always plenty of other books to read, and the books of his that I came across were never the first in the series, and I didn’t get around to finding the books that did start the series. Then I saw Trains and Lovers and decided that was a good way to get another taste of McCall Smith’s writing.
It’s an easy and fairly quick read. The stories – all about love and only peripherally about trains, though trains are what tie them together to the extent that anything does – are well-told and open a window into people’s minds and hearts. They are a mix of joy, disappointment, longing, memories, and grief, as life tends to be. There is nothing terribly wrenching to read about, though I found myself inclined sometimes to pick up another book in between chapters, rather than find out more of a story that seemed headed into unpleasant memories.
In the end, my chief complaint is that the stories seem to have little context other than the railway car in which they are told. Just as the passengers went on with their lives and probably gave little thought to those they had just spend a few hours sharing their stories with, I find it unlikely that I will give much thought to this book once I have finished this blog post.
Perhaps the stories are supposed to convey whatever theme there is to the book. That each of us is a very small part of most other people’s life story (though another book I just started seems to convey that idea better within the first few chapters). That love comes in many different shapes, and is never without pain but is generally worth it anyway. That life goes on despite the love or the lack of it, just as the train continues inexorably down the tracks. Perhaps it is a good thing for the reader to have to look for meaning in the book rather than having the author spell it out.
But I like to have a book that leaves me wishing for more. For more of the story to be told. For more contact with these characters, to get to know them and perhaps wish I could know them in real life. For more books to be written by the author because he adds something important to me through his books.
Instead, I put down Trains and Lovers, thought briefly that it had been a reasonably good book, and promptly picked up the next library book from the table. A book that doesn’t make me want to take time to just think about it, after I have finished it, is lacking something, even if I’m not clear on what that is.