McCall Smith’s sequel to My Italian Bulldozer (2017, etc.) switches its focus from Italy to a small French village where the earlier novel’s hero, a Scottish food writer, falls into very mild adventures while trying to improve the local restaurant.
After finishing his recent food guide to Tuscany, 36-year-old Paul Stuart has returned to Edinburgh and is living “part-time” with his editor/girlfriend, Gloria. But Gloria’s cats prove an annoying distraction whenever Paul sits down to write his newly contracted book on the philosophy of food. When the already lukewarm romance with Gloria sputters out, he accepts an invitation from a relative known to their family as “Remarkable Cousin Chloe” to join her in a village near Poitiers. He’s hoping he’ll have the quiet and peace to finish his philosophy tome before his publisher’s six-month deadline. Instead he ends up hanging out with 50-something Chloe and the landladies of the villa she has leased. These older women involve him in various escapades surrounding the local restaurant described by the novel’s title. The waitress is busy hiding from her new baby’s nefarious father, so Chloe and Paul volunteer to take over for her; the owner, who has no cooking skills, falls for Chloe while Paul finds an unlikely ally in turning the food service around. Paul comments that Chloe strikes him as belonging to an earlier era “when people made tactless remarks and rarely apologized for what they were.” Actually, Chloe’s list of ex-husbands, her mysterious, rather daring career, and her New Age–y politics of kindness make her seem a more contemporary, as well as more intriguing, character than Paul himself. He’s a young fogey who exhibits the formal, bloodless sensibility of someone around 70 (McCall Smith’s age)—affronted by students playing loud music, he rejects passes from several young women and is tired of song lyrics about love.
McCall Smith knows how to turn a phrase, but this novel never rises above a low simmer.