McCall Smith (Chance Developments, 2016, etc.) adds to the overworked subgenre of Tuscan travel romance with this pallid story about a Scottish cookery writer recovering from his broken heart in Italy.
Paul has published nine wildly successful books about food and wine under the tutelage of his “freelance editor” Gloria, who may harbor but doesn’t quite express deeper than professional feelings for him. This is a contemporary novel, and Paul, whose decency and sensitivity McCall Smith frequently touts, is only supposed to be 36, but his reticence, especially concerning sex, and the mildly witty, buttoned-down dialogue make both character and time frame seem much older—think 1930s Fred Astaire sidekick. After Paul’s girlfriend, Becky, dumps him for her personal trainer (the first of many oh please! moments in a novel rife with clichés) and Paul falls apart, Gloria suggests he take a trip to Tuscany to finish up his book on the Tuscan lifestyle. Arriving in Pisa, he faces a series of unfortunate events one would think an experienced travel writer would manage more handily. Victimized by stereotypically hot-tempered, conceited, and larcenous Italians, he’s left without transportation to his destination, the small village of Montalcino, and even lands briefly in jail until the equally stereotypical, charming Italian “cavaliere” whom Paul met on the flight over bails him out and finds a vehicle for him to drive: a bulldozer. That bulldozer also more or less drives the plot, allowing Paul to meet charming American art historian Anna when he pulls her car out of a ditch and involving him, however unknowingly, in several escapades involving Montalcino villagers. Soon romantic complications set in: Paul thinks he’s in love with Anna but she has a male friend coming to visit; Becky shows up to apologize, followed for reasons that remain vague by Gloria. Montalcino, of course, is full of natural beauty, ruined buildings, salt-of-the-earth if charming connivers, and underappreciated wine.
McCall Smith knows how to concoct delightful fictions, but this one is undercooked.