cover image Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounters of the Romantic Kind

Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounters of the Romantic Kind

Alexander McCall Smith. Pantheon, $25.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0-5933-1575-0

Smith (the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series) returns with a placid collection inspired by photographs from the London Sunday Times archive. The photos appear alongside each story, their subjects generally imagined to possess lonely souls. In the heartbreaking “I’d Cry Buckets,” the feelings between two teenage boys in Scotland go unsaid, leading to decades of missed opportunities for love. The comical “St. John’s Wort” features a crafty Scottish wife who concocts an herbal remedy for her frazzled husband who is obsessed with the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the misery-filled title story, WWII uproots a wealthy British rubber company executive and his family. In “Students,” a fuming landlord learns the pitfalls of renting to university students. Smith’s polished descriptions enliven the photos’ time capsule qualities and convincingly explore the societal conventions of their eras, but none of the characters is very distinctive and some may as well be interchangeable, typified by the passive 26-year-old Scottish woman who moves to London in “Sphinx”: “She had drifted into something... without any conscious assertion of will, any firm choices, because it was easy.” Still, Smith’s expert handling of conflict and rich imagination make this one his fans will enjoy. (Jan.)