Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith
I wasn’t looking for Jane Austen when I started reading the second book in this delightful series about the people who live in an apartment building located on 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh. But isn’t that the beauty of Austen? She’s always around, whether we expect her or not.
These references appear first as one of our residents, a young woman named Pat who is, with difficulty, navigating the dating scene, visits the apartment of a man she met at a café. At this point in her visit, she is concerned that this man to whom she feels some attraction may not be interested in her romantically—may not, in fact, be interested romantically in women at all. So as he goes to make some coffee for the two of them, Pat assesses Peter’s apartment and finds “a pile of books—a Jane Austen novel, a book of critical essays, the Notebooks of Robert Lowell, a dictionary.” She also finds lecture notes for his upcoming Tuesday talk on “Social expectations and artistic freedom in Austen’s England.” At first, I was concerned that she might interpret any interest in Austen as a sign of his exclusively platonic interest in women, but no, McCall Smith is too smart for that. The sign that most worries Pat is not that she has found an intelligent, obviously wit-appreciating man but that there’s a photograph of Peter skinny-dipping, and she worries his friend is male.
To Pat’s credit, she mentally compares her gel-obsessed arrogant roommate Bruce’s reaction to Austen—he “once asked if Jane Austen was an actress”—to this nice Peter’s engagement with our writer, and she temporarily concludes that Peter is “far too handsome to be interested in girls.” This reader is hoping, for Pat’s sake as well as for my own, that this is an error in judgment.
Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers by Alexander McCall Smith
I certainly never expected to like Olive, but when Bertie attends her seventh birthday party, she rejects her friend Pansy’s game request of “houses” in favor of playing “Jane Austen”! Olive lets herself be Lizzy, whom she describes as “a girl with lots of sisters.” Pansy plays Mrs. Bennet, “who is very stupid,” and Lakshmi plays Jane. Bertie, of course, is assigned the role of Mr. Darcy, and his instructions are to “just stand there and be handsome” (8). I just hope McCall Smith intended no ill will to lovers of Jane in making precocious but annoying Olive love her, too. Or at least some version of her. Maybe his point is that Olive misunderstands what matters in Austen?
McCall Smith naturally incorporates Austen into 44 Scotland Street at just the right moments (any moment of Jane is a right moment to me), and I was sorry to finish the last one (at least, for now). Fortunately for all of us, his modern take on Emma is available!