McCall Smith can’t resist letting his characters ruminate on some ethical issues.
The Second-Worst Restaurant in France is as fresh and charming as any of Alexander McCall Smith’s work. You would think that a person who has penned around 100 books would be tired of writing and have run out of fresh ideas. Not so in the case of McCall Smith, who apparently writes some thousands of words each day whether travelling or at his home in Edinburgh.
This time around, McCall Smith has conjured up a successful food writer, Paul Stuart, and his colourful older relative, known in Paul’s family as ‘Remarkable Cousin Chloe’. The two experience some exciting adventures in a remote part of France revolving around a restaurant badly in need of upgrading. Twin sisters, a local villain, and a single mother challenge Paul and Chloe’s ingenuity, while incomparably good croissants from the local baker are some small compensation.
Typically, McCall Smith can’t resist letting his characters ruminate on some ethical issues. Paul ponders whether the end justifies the means: ‘it was the same debate, endlessly rehearsed, endlessly unended.’ Meanwhile, Chloe is unequivocal about cultural relativism and moral relativism. ‘Some things are wrong – just plain wrong – irrespective of cultural differences,’ she says. ‘Head-hunting, for instance. Ritual murder. Slavery. All of these are wrong even if some benighted cultures may endorse them.’ (It is a tirade brought on by the subject of bull-fighting.) When Paul asks Chloe if she is a monarchist, she replies, ‘You might approve of the idea of a monarchy – of constitutional monarchy, shall we say – and yet disapprove of a particular monarchy. As far as that monarchy is concerned, you might not be a monarchist, but you may approve – possibly quite strongly – of other monarchies.’
One of the skills McCall Smith brings to his writing is the seemingly effortless segues from story-line to discussion on some vaguely related matter before returning to the story. When Chloe and Paul have to move their car to the side of a narrow road to let a tractor driver pass, their conversation goes, via the chattering classes’ ignorance of food production, from small-scale farmers to Marie Antoinette’s fake peasant village. And then moves on to a debate as to what Marie Antoinette might have said, with Chloe asserting that Marie Antoinette had a social conscience. ‘She was concerned about the suffering of the poor when she came across it. There’s evidence,’ Chloe insists.
Although McCall Smith embellishes his story about a badly run rural French restaurant with incidental conversations and literary allusions, these do not detract from the plot. Rather they are the icing on the cake – a cake that would be satisfying even without icing. The Second-Worst Restaurant in France has a plot with some surprising turns and twists and manages a spanking pace in spite of the icing. In a gentle way, it is a love story, about both people and food. And, above all, it is excellent entertainment.
4.5 stars out of 5 ★★★★☆
The Second-Worst Restaurant in France by Alexander McCall Smith
Release Date: 9 May 2019