Ro­mance, a book and a bull­dozer

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Muriel Dob­bin Muriel Dob­bin is a for­mer White House and na­tional po­lit­i­cal re­porter for McClatchy news­pa­pers and the Bal­ti­more Sun.

MY ITAL­IAN BULL­DOZER By Alexander McCall Smith Pan­theon, $25.95, 240 pages

Only a few au­thors would em­bark on a book about a writer “lum­ber­ing” through Italy while driv­ing a bull­dozer. Per­haps even fewer would be suc­cess­ful, and cer­tainly Alexander McCall Smith is one of them. One of the most pro­lific of writers and one of the most charm­ing, he bounces through this happy pil­grim­age, which is a mix­ture of his own gen­tle phi­los­o­phy, recipes, ro­mance and how to park a bull­dozer when your rental car doesn’t show up.

The plot is more of a vi­gnette fo­cused on a chap­ter in the life of Paul Ste­wart, a food and wine spe­cial­ist who takes off for Italy to write another book and to lick his ro­man­tic wounds im­posed by aban­don­ment by his wife Becky, who runs off with her trainer. His ad­viser and man­ager is Glo­ria, who en­cour­ages him on his sa­fari to the idyl­lic Ital­ian town of Mon­tal­cino to com­plete an over­due cook­book project and cheer him up.

It all be­gins with the kind of hi­lar­i­ous dis­as­ter pe­cu­liar to this au­thor when Paul finds he has no rental car at the air­port and sees his plans dis­ap­pear­ing in a cloud of in­com­pe­tent Ital­ian bu­reau­cracy ex­ac­er­bated by a bump­tious air­line agent who in­sists he has stolen the miss­ing car.

He is res­cued by a friendly Ital­ian pro­fes­sor whom he met on his plane and who solves his prob­lem with the un­likely so­lu­tion of a bull­dozer. Paul has never driven a bull­dozer, but that does not pre­vent him from try­ing, and he finds it a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence — es­pe­cially since the el­e­vated lo­ca­tion of the driver’s seat gives him a bet­ter view of other driv­ers and the lovely coun­try­side. He makes friends as he rum­bles along, in­clud­ing a woman with whom he de­cides he has fallen in love on the ba­sis of a brief and un­ex­pected meet­ing. He in­trigues all he meets be­cause of his un­usual mode of travel and his book goes well. Then Becky arrives, an­nounc­ing she wants to talk, with­out nec­es­sar­ily giv­ing up on her trainer lover whom she con­tin­ues to find more in­ter­est­ing than poor Paul.

To fur­ther com­pli­cate mat­ters, Glo­ria shows up to pro­tect her fa­vorite au­thor with whom, not sur­pris­ing, she is in love. It takes a while for Paul and Glo­ria to sort them­selves out, but that pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for Mr. McCall Smith to in­dulge in his fa­vorite hobby of phi­los­o­phiz­ing about food, travel and how peo­ple are re­ally lov­able once you get to know them and make al­lowances for them. He even per­suades a gloomy priest to con­fide in the re­cep­tive Paul in be­tween sip­ping a new wine and lit­er­ally cook­ing up new recipes for his book

This is the kind of book you can dip into and be grate­ful for. Even the bull­dozer is rather charm­ing once Paul learns to ma­nip­u­late it through the wind­ing paths of ro­man­tic Italy.

It is a bonus that he also reaches the con­clu­sion that he is bet­ter off with­out Becky and has dis­cov­ered what he has been miss­ing in Glo­ria.

Per­haps the in­de­fati­ga­ble Mr. McCall Smith might have given us more of plot de­vel­op­ment this time around be­cause so much of the book is fo­cused on de­scrip­tions of the Ital­ian land­scape, which is un­der­stand­able. But there may be too much of Italy and too lit­tle of Paul, who be­comes some­thing of a cipher as char­ac­ters blend into more char­ac­ters, and it is not cred­i­ble that he be­comes so quickly en­am­ored of a lady so deeply in­volved with some­one else. Es­pe­cially when the other man turns out to be bur­dened by a very ob­vi­ous dis­fig­ure­ment. Which, of course, makes poor Paul feel guilty and makes the reader won­der about the woman who pro­fesses her­self so de­voted to her lover yet so ap­par­ently vul­ner­a­ble to another at­trac­tion to a to­tal stranger. The ac­cent of the pic­nic held by the three of them is al­most clumsy, which is most un­like the au­thor’s style.

It is rare that he stum­bles, but it weak­ens the plot. Nev­er­the­less, the book is a cozy read.

He makes friends as he rum­bles along, in­clud­ing a woman with whom he de­cides he has fallen in love on the ba­sis of a brief and un­ex­pected meet­ing. He in­trigues all he meets be­cause of his un­usual mode of travel.


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