There's just something romantic about a journey by train, an idea that's been celebrated to great effect in film classics such as Strangers on a Train and Murder on the Orient Express.
The title of Alexander McCall Smith's Trains and Lovers seems to suggest a dramatic destination. But this lightweight effort, which follows four strangers who share a compartment on a train from Edinburgh to London and recount their personal tales of love and loss, misses the station by a mile.
The novel is billed as McCall Smith's first standalone novel in four years. Fans of the prolific author's incredibly popular mysteries series -- The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, 44 Scotland Street and The Corduroy Mansions -- may be prepared for the kind of bland fare he dishes out in this dining car. To be fair, he's not usually promoted as the Scottish Michael Ondaatje.
Still, from a writer who in 2007 was made a Companion of the British Empire for his services to literature, surely it's not ridiculous to expect something less ... ordinary?
Unfortunately, Trains and Lovers is surprisingly banal -- the literary equivalent, if you will, of an episode of Highway to Heaven. It's not terrible, by any means, and one can't fault McCall Smith's simple but effective prose, but it's just not terribly gripping, either.
McCall Smith's observations on love are certainly nothing revolutionary, and the love stories are all too familiar -- issues of trust and social status, forbidden love -- and so sentimental that they never go deep enough to make much of an impression.
His characters are at times reminiscent of Maeve Binchy's, but hers are typically drawn with more depth and personality.
It's difficult to imagine that four complete strangers sharing a train compartment would exchange more than the most basic pleasantries. Barring that, they would likely be glued to their mobile phone or e-reader for the remainder of the journey. McCall Smith's characters somehow seem like relics from a different time.
His writing is oddly nostalgic in tone, and has a certain naivety, as if it were written for a gentler era. Instead of generating any real drama -- or realism -- McCall Smith all too often closes his chapters with sunny, Pollyanna-like proverbs, like this clunker: "Loving others, she thought, is the good thing we do in our lives."
Occasionally, he does surprise with a line or two that hints at something deeper, as when one of the travellers recalls watching two lovers as they say goodbye:
"He looked up at the vaulted ceiling of the great railway station. It is indifferent to parting, he thought. And then he thought: the architecture of farewell. The architecture of love. The architecture of loss."
There's nothing wrong with stories that make you feel good, and in this day and age, there's something to be said for a little optimism.
One only needs to check the bestseller lists to see that McCall Smith must be doing something right. Maybe it's just one of those mysteries. Like love.
Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.