“Trains and Lovers” by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon, 240 pages, $22)
The characters in Alexander McCall Smith’s books often feel like the kind of old friends that you can go years without seeing but when you do get together, you immediately pick up as if you’d seen each other last week. They are generally nice people, whose quirks are charming and whose lives are interesting but not too far out of the ordinary. This means that whether they are lady detectives in Botswana, Sunday philosophers in Edinburgh, urban neighbors or German academics, they are always a pleasure to spend time with.
You will not find serial killers or heartless psychopaths in Smith’s books; his stories will not be labeled “dark” or “gritty.” And this means that the pleasant nature of his books often belies the incisive observations on human nature that they contain. His books may not be heavy, but they can be deep.
“Trains and Lovers” is a standalone novel, not part of any of Smith’s five established series, set on a train running from Edinburgh to London. Four strangers meet on the train — “Journeys may be like that, may bring together people who would otherwise never have known of each other’s existence” — and over the course of the trip, we learn their stories of love: love and happiness, love and loss, love and family, love that could never be.
Kay, a middle-aged Australian, was visiting her father’s birthplace, and we get her story of her parents’ meeting, marriage and life in Australia. Hugh and Andrew are younger, in their 20s and still looking for The One. Their boy-meets-girl situations have hit a few bumps, but we can guess they’ll turn out all right in the end. David, American by birth, is the quiet one, sitting and listening to the others’ stories while thinking of his own true love, whom he was never able to tell about his feelings.
Their stories envelop us, each in its own way — we can smell the dust of the Outback and hear the gentle lap of waves against a rowboat — and they resist reducing emotion to platitudes. Love doesn’t always end happily, but even then it can end well, with hope, dignity and humanity, and that’s just what “Trains and Lovers” celebrates.