Book a Trip with Trains and Lovers
Review by Julian Wolf
Trains and Lovers
Alexander McCall Smith
I picked up Trains and Lovers because it was an attractive hardcover book that looked like it would fit easily into my messenger bag. I wasn't familiar with the author (best-known for his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series), but the concept of four strangers meeting on a train and sharing stories about their lives as they traveled piqued my interest.
Upon reading, I found myself transported to a world that seemed out of time, to the point that I was jarred when one of the characters mentioned a cell phone—and I mean that as a compliment. I found a bit of hope in a novel written in the modern day in which people actually sit and talk, as opposed to staring into lit screens and virtual worlds.
In this frequently captivating novel, Alexander McCall Smith weaves together the stories of four strangers, an Englishman, a Scotsman, an American and an Australian, and their coincidentally intersecting lives. In their commute from Scotland to England, the characters share their stories, including how train travel has affected their lives in the past.
I preferred the parts of the novel written in first person to those sections explaining the narrative in third person, but the voice was not so tiresome as to give me need to put the book down.
Smith explores the theme of trains and train travel in Europe thoroughly. The "lovers" part of the equation isn't limited to romance, although those affections certainly aren't neglected. As the novel advances, we move from station to station along with the characters, though sometimes the transitions are less linear. The stories in Trains and Lovers weave in and out like pieces of conversation, the way a group of strangers might talk to one another in a train car. While I usually found this technique effective, I sometimes felt impatient to get back to the parts of the story I was enjoying the most.
Overall, I was surprised by the poignancy of several moments in the novel, and I enjoyed taking this trip with these four passengers. The book offers insights into love that, while not groundbreaking, are refreshing to see. "Love," says the author, "happens to just about everyone," and the characters go on to share their insights, each of them representing the lovers referenced in the title. It was easy to imagine myself on a train as I read this, and the time I spent on an airplane turning its pages were pleasant. Lounging on a hammock with a glass of lemonade would also be a lovely way to enjoy this story. While I doubt that Trains and Lovers will alter the course of its readers’ lives, I found it to be a lovely, quiet vacation that requires no packing, missed connections or meeting actual strangers on trains.