Chance developments

Alexander McCall Smith, 1948-

Large print - 2016

While gathering material for a photography book about Edinburgh, Alexander McCall Smith found himself inspired to create stories about the people captured in a number of particularly striking photos. A smiling girl leading a younger girl astride a pony, and a boy in a kilt on a tricycle beside them, gives rise to a story of a lifelong romance between the two riders. A dapper, roguish-looking man perching on a lady's knee sparks the story of a ventriloquist and an animal handler who work in a circus, and who, under the most delightfully unexpected circumstances, fall in love. The image of a woman haloed by light in a train station becomes the lighthearted tale of a nun's decision to leave the sisterhood and discover what the big ci...ty has to offer. Charming and poignant, this collection is brimming with the flourishes of grace and humor that could only come from the pen of Alexander McCall Smith.

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New York : Random House Large Print [2016]
Main Author
Alexander McCall Smith, 1948- (author)
Physical Description
x, 238 pages (large print) : illustrations ; 24 cm
  • Author's Note
  • Sister Flora's First Day of Freedom
  • Angels in Italy
  • Dear Ventriloquist
  • The Woman with the Beautiful Car
  • He Wanted to Believe in Tenderness
Review by New York Times Review

ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH is a prolific writer, with over 80 books to date, including the best-selling series "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency." I am a fan of his "44 Scotland Street" novels, subtle comedies chronicling life among the comfortable classes at the bohemian end of Edinburgh's New Town. Each closes with a festive gathering where Angus Lordie, portrait artist and proud companion of Cyril, a dog distinguished by a gold tooth, improvises a poem celebrating human fellowship. "Chance Developments," McCall Smith's new collection of stories, has less of the gentle satire that moderates the sentiment in Scotland Street. But these stories are also written in praise of the human capacity for love. They were inspired by a handful of "orphaned" or unattributed black-and-white photographs of unknown people in unnamed locations. McCall Smith imagines a family history or a personal odyssey behind each print, along with settings that range across continents, from a traveling circus in Canada to an Australian mining town, the Scottish Highlands and the Tuscan hills. Yet, characteristically, what he finds is not difference or strangeness but what we have in common. A village schoolteacher in the west of Ireland chafes at his humdrum future and falls for an unknown girl in a beautiful car; a nun leaves the convent and has the new adventure of taking tea in a department store; a nerdish young man, exhausting his parents with his obsession with the memory-training system known as Pelmanism, embarks on life as a showman. A sense of possibility, of the surprises that make even the quietest existence eventful, animates each tale. McCall Smith travels lightly over history and across generations, evoking the past with a deft feel for period detail and the local lingo. He is a past master at using the economy of the short story to highlight the amplitude of the imagination. Photographs are always memento mori, arresting life. But in fiction and fantasy we need never come to a full stop. These tales are romances, although not because they are mainly, as he puts it in an author's note, "love stories in one sense or another." Their romance lies in the faith that we can be transformed by our affections, transported to our better selves. In McCall Smith's generous world, love is always a hopeful sign, whatever the object. In the circus story, when Ruby the ventriloquist loses her beloved dummy in a fire she is aptly consoled by the human cannonball: "He was a great prop, Harold was. He wouldn't have known anything about it. The heat was very intense." McCall Smith doesn't do spleen, cynicism or despair. Suffering tends to happen discreetly, between the section breaks; setbacks are met by good-natured philosophizing or brisk moral bracing of the sort espoused by Isabel Dalhousie, the scholar-heroine of "The Sunday Philosophy Club," another of his Edinburgh series. Politics rarely ruffles the surface; private virtues must be pitted against social inequality, while getting on in the world through self-reliance is no bad thing. Still, I couldn't quite imagine a Mother Superior letting go of one of her charges as agreeably as she does in the first story, confessing to the newly rich Sister Flora, "Being wealthy will be ... well, rather nice, don't you think?" But perhaps Scottish nuns are different. "Chance Developments" will not be everyone's cup of tea. Even fans may find these serendipitous tales - comforting, touching and often funny though they are - just a little Panglossian. But does it matter? Like Angus Lordie's odes, these stories trust in the liberal, humane values that are at the heart of all McCall Smith's fiction. Can one have too much of that hopefulness? I doubt it. ALISON LIGHT'S most recent book is "Common People: In Pursuit of My Ancestors."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [September 14, 2016]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Smith once again exhibits his versatility with this vibrant and delightful collection of short stories all centering on the themes of love and happenstance. Preceding each story is a vintage photograph that Smith found while doing research for a different project, and from each photo a world emerges. In each story, the black-and-white static figures become people dreaming of new beginnings and romance, reminiscing on good times past, or lamenting lost love and opportunities. Smith peels off the layers of anonymity in these forgotten photos and imagines a new life for the subjects, and in one case the photographer. Featuring a nun abandoning her lifelong commitment to the veil to start fresh in a bigger city, a young circus performer who unwittingly tells an accurate fortune, and a man who stoops to a bit of subterfuge to meet a pretty lady, the stories are filled with the weight of real life and how chance finds its way in, no matter how we attempt to plan otherwise. Both uplifting and at times bittersweet and emotional, this collection is sure to delight both Smith fans and newcomers alike. (July) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Well-known writer McCall Smith (e.g., "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series) offers a variety of short stories inspired by black-and-white historic photographs the author discovered when he was putting together a photography book about Edinburgh. The stories present the imagined lives and circumstances of the people in each photograph with charming result. For instance, from the picture of a woman in a train station the author creates Sister Flora, a former nun, and describes her experience as she reenters the world. An image of three children and a pony inspires a tale of star-crossed lovers reunited. Verdict McCall Smith continues his prolificacy with a winning collection offering stories that are gentle, humorous, and emotion-packed. Readers of fiction in general and of McCall Smith in particular will enjoy this book. [See Prepub Alert, 2/1/16.]-Joanna Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

In these five long stories, McCall Smith (The Revolving Door of Life, 2016, etc.) imagines the worlds he has glimpsed in the black-and-white photographs he shares with the reader. "Sister Flora's First Day of Freedom" opens with the volume's most compelling photograph: the back of a woman about to step out of a shaft of light, "at the point where an old life was consigned to the past and an entirely different life was being embarked upon." Having inherited some money and quit her convent, Flora arrives in Edinburgh to find a husband. Her tart matter-of-factness keeps the mood of possibility and good fortune from turning cloying. "Angels in Italy" opens with an elderly Scottish woman in Italy showing a young man a photo of herself as a young girl leading a smaller girl on a pony beside an unhappy-looking boy on a bike. That boy grew up to become a famous painter, the subject of a magazine profile the young man is writing. The old woman tells the story of her complicated relationship with the artist, and the young man writes it down "exactly how it happened." There are three people in the "Dear Ventriloquist" photo: a woman, the man sitting on her lap, and "the person behind the camera." This portrait of a mild love triangle in a Canadian traveling circus is feather-light. So is "The Woman with the Beautiful Car." The 1907 Standard Tourer belongs to the woman facing the camera, while two men change its tire. She is a young Irish heiress, one of the men the village teacher. Their meet-cute romance is a snapshot of man-made coincidence involving tacks. "He Wanted to Believe in Tenderness," with its picture of a smiling soldier beside a woman whose expression is enigmatic, challenges McCall Smith's generally sunny outlook. The story includes both a grim prisoner-of-war experience and three marital betrayals. In all these stories, love and goodness ultimately win out, but the charming details and bittersweet human cost are what resonate. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Sister Flora's First Day of Freedom   1   They did their best to be generous to Sister Flora when she left the convent, but the dresses they gave her left something to be desired. A great deal, in fact, according to some.   "Well!" muttered one of the laywomen who helped with the vegetable garden. "Did you see the outfits they gave her? You wouldn't think it was 1961--more like 1931!"   She was right about the dresses, of which there were two. Both had been donated to the convent by the women's guild at the local church, and both were irretrievably dull. One was made of beige bombazine, the other of a rough wool fabric of the sort that a rural schoolmistress might have worn decades earlier. Both had been retrieved from somebody's ward­robe, both had a faint odour of camphor, although neither appeared to have suffered any moth damage.   They also gave her an unbecoming grey cardigan, a plain, full-length coat, and a pair of shoes that was slightly too small. The shoes, at least, were new, although they, too, were far from fashionable. Then there was a small suitcase, a sponge bag of toiletries, and an envelope containing fifteen pounds.   "We might have entertained the possibility of giving you a slightly larger sum," said the Mother Superior, "but since you are going to be living with your aunt you will have no rent to pay, and I imagine your aunt, being the pious woman she is, will provide necessities."   Flora smiled. "I don't really deserve anything," she said. "I brought nothing with me when I came ten years ago, and I don't think I should leave with anything."   "That's a very good attitude," the Mother Superior con­tinued. "Mind you, I gather that money is not going to be a problem. This sum is purely to tide you over until such time as your . . . your arrangements are in place."   "I have been most fortunate," she said. "I am not intend­ing to forget that, Mother."   "No," said the Mother Superior. "I don't imagine you will. You always had a very good disposition, you know. I'm sorry that one or two people have been passing . . . well, what can only be described as uncharitable remarks." She looked away, her lips pursed in disapproval. "I heard somebody say they thought that money had interfered with God's plan for you."   "I don't think that's entirely fair," said Flora.   "Neither do I," said the Mother Superior. "And indeed I imagine there are circumstances that suggest that God's plan for certain people is that they should have money. After all, if nobody had any money, then who would give to the Holy Church?"   "Precisely," said Flora.   The Mother Superior looked out of the window. "I was very reassured to hear that you hadn't lost your faith. That was a great comfort to me, you know."   "I haven't lost it," said Flora. "It's just that . . . oh, I suppose it's just that I decided that I'm not cut out for the religious life. I've enjoyed it well enough, but I feel that somehow life is passing me by."   "Quite understandable, my child," said the Mother Superior.   "And I thought that I really had to make a decision one way or the other. So I decided that I would go out into the world. It just seemed the right thing for me to do."   "We all understand," said the Mother Superior. "I under-stand; poor Sister Frances understands--just; and Father Sullivan understands. You'll be happy doing God's work in the wider world--whatever that happens to be."   "I hope so."   "And, of course," continued the Mother Superior, "you will be a wealthy woman."   Sister Flora lowered her eyes. "I didn't reach the decision because of that," she said. "I had already decided."   "Oh, I know that," said the Mother Superior. "I wasn't for a moment suggesting post hoc, propter hoc . But being wealthy will be . . . well, rather nice , don't you think?"   2   It was difficult for her to remember when it dawned on her that she had a vocation. Some people spoke of a moment of revelation--a moment of certainty--the meaning of which was completely clear. One of the younger sisters had said that it had come to her one morning when she got out of bed and opened the window. "There was a particular sort of light," she said. "It filled the sky, and I knew at once that I was being called." Another said that it had come to her in a dream, when she had seen the Virgin herself, who had beckoned her. That, she said, was a sign that would only come once in a life­time and should not be taken lightly, nor questioned.   It had been different for Flora. She had never had a sense of controlling her own future, of making decisions about what she would do--this, it seemed to her, had been done for her by others. It was not that anybody imposed their will on her; it was more gentle than that. There were suggestions that she had been thinking of a religious life all along; that it was something for which she had somehow shown an apti­tude. And then, just as she was about to leave school, there had been that fateful conversation with Sister Angela, a par­ticularly sympathetic nun, who had said, "There will always be a place for you in the Order, you know." And she had been flattered that she should be thought of in this way.   At university she had become involved in the Catholic chaplaincy, and again assumptions were made. "It's easy for you," one of her friends had said. "You're obviously going to end up in the Church. You don't have to look for something."   Flora had simply said, "No, I suppose I don't." And that, she thought, was the moment at which the decision--if one could call it that--was made. She finished her degree, and took a year's teaching diploma after that before entering the convent as a novice. They were delighted that she had joined them; they ran a school and there was a shortage of nuns with recent, recognised teaching qualifications. A newly minted graduate of the University of Glasgow--in mathematics, of all things--was exactly the sort of young woman the convent wanted.   Her parents were proud of her. They were now elderly, and she was their only child. Any thoughts they had about losing the daughter who might care for them in their old age were eclipsed by their pleasure in having provided the Church, which was at the core of their lives, with such a charming servant.   Her father died a month after she took her final vows, and her mother survived him by barely a year. Thereafter her only family was her aunt and uncle, a childless couple, who lived in a small town on the Clyde estuary. This uncle had been a successful hotelier and caterer, who had made wise investments in land on the outskirts of the city. Flora was aware that he was well off, but it had never occurred to her that he would direct that a large part of his estate was to go to her. She had met the lawyer at his funeral, a thin man with a nasal voice, who had been introduced to her by her aunt at the funeral tea.   "I was always a great admirer of your uncle," said the lawyer. "His good works were legion, you know."   She smiled. "He will be missed," she said.   The lawyer adjusted his tie. "I will need to speak to you at some point," he said. "Not here, of course--this isn't really the moment. But you are, you may know, his heir."   She looked at him blankly. "But my aunt?"   "She is very well provided for already," said the lawyer. "You're what we call the residuary beneficiary, and that will involve a substantial amount. A very substantial amount."   Excerpted from Chance Developments: Stories by Alexander McCall Smith All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.