Bertie Pollack is the precocious six-year-old son of Irene, who, if she were American, might be called a “helicopter mom” for her constant hovering over Bertie’s every move. In the Edinburgh New Town district where Bertie also lives with his father and baby brother, Ulysses, Irene is generally thought of as “that insufferable woman” by one and all. This would include their neighbors, who are fond of Bertie but avoid Irene at all costs, his psychotherapist, (whom no one, including the psychotherapist himself, thinks he needs), his saxophone teacher, his yoga instructor, his school teacher and his exotically named schoolmates: Tofu, Hiawatha and Olive. To round out his education, Bertie is tutored at home after school by his mum as they listen to Dante’s Inferno -- in Italian.
"As in all of Smith’s charming and heartwarming tales, all’s well that ends well. This edition is perhaps the best one yet."
Poor Bertie seems trapped in a time-warped construct created nearly 100 years earlier by A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin, who, thrilled to be six, wanted “to be six for ever and ever.” Not Bertie, who has probably never heard of Christopher Robin because Irene would find Winnie the Pooh too prosaic and endearing for a brilliant young Scotsman. Bertie feels stuck at six in the bubble of his mother’s world where Scouting For Boys is too militaristic an organization what with their Swiss Army knives and silly khaki shorts. A kilts, which Bertie yearns to wear, are banned by Irene as too nationalistic and arcane.
Meanwhile, upstairs neighbor anthropologist Domenica MacDonald is invited, along with her old friend, artist Angus Lordy and his dog Cyril, to spend a month in Italy with Domenica’s neighbor, Angelica. Angelica’s man-hunting reputation precedes her, and Domenica sees her platonic relationship with Angus threatened by the proposed sleeping arrangements. Even though she escaped from Somali pirate kidnappers and spent months studying the Nuer tribe in Ethiopa, Domenica finds dealing with a manipulative female rival to be a challenge of a different sort. Angus and the adventurous Cyril set off a scene created by Cyril’s past as a police dog drug sniffer, attracting a furor upon arrival at the Florence airport. The trio goes on to enjoy their sojourn at the villa, which holds unexpected turns for all.
Matthew, the wealthy owner of a neighborhood art gallery, has recently married Bertie’s former teacher, Elspeth, who lost her job for tweaking the ear of one of Bertie’s school mates. They are barely moved into their flat when Elspeth learns that she is pregnant --- a fact met with mixed emotions so early in their marriage, especially when she discovers she’s carrying triplets. A move to a larger flat is needed, which brings an encounter with the self-absorbed and vain Bruce, the subject of two or three prior books from Scotland Street. Life’s lessons have been harsh on Bruce, and he’s trying to mend his ways, but there’s still work to be done when he creates a serious situation between Matthew and his bride.
Other familiar faces come and go throughout the novel, rounding out the satisfying and amusing circle of friends and family. Because of a wrong turn in the woods, Bertie sees light at the end of his six-year-long tunnel as his birthday approaches.
Bertie’s adventures have made him the most popular character in all of the imaginary worlds from the creative mind of Alexander McCall Smith, who professes delighted surprise that Bertie has become a favorite of his many international fans. Smith said that when he is on tour, he is asked more often about Bertie (usually prefaced with “poor” Bertie) than any of his other prodigious stable of fascinating characters.
As in all of Smith’s charming and heartwarming tales, all’s well that ends well. This edition is perhaps the best one yet.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on September 28, 2012
The Importance of Being Seven: A 44 Scotland Street Novel