California Literary Review

Book Review: Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith

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August 12th, 2010 at 9:56 am

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Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith
Corduroy Mansions: A Novel
by Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, 368 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆


Serial Comedy

Corduroy Mansions, Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel, is a very curious book. Set in Pimlico, the delightful neighborhood in central London, it is a tale of inter-woven lives, loves and lingering hopes of happiness.

The building that gives the novel its title is an Edwardian townhouse well-past its prime. Now subdivided into three apartments or “flats,” Corduroy Mansions is occupied by an ensemble of cheerfully eccentric characters. Smith relates their travails with a warm empathy for the human condition. The multi-faceted plot is deftly handled — almost too seamlessly in fact. With so many different story-lines in play, the temptation to hop over one sub-plot to keep up with another is very hard to resist.

The legions of admirers of Smith’s other novels, notably The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, will find a great deal to keep them happily reading Corduroy Mansions. The twist with this book, however, is that it is the print version of the author’s first online novel. Smith originally wrote the 100 short chapters for publication in daily episodes during 2008 for the website of the British newspaper The Telegraph. He followed this up with a sequel, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, which ran online from September to December 2009. The hard cover print version was published in Great Britain in May 2010.

A novel very much in the spirit of Dickens and Trollope, Corduroy Mansions is also up-to-date with plenty of 21st century cultural references. All of this is very good news for readers, bookstores and the world wide web. But there is a price to be paid for all of these literary gifts.

Fortunately, the novel’s positives are many — and no more so than in the wealth of memorable protagonists that fill its pages.

The great strength of Corduroy Mansions is the brilliant interplay of a diverse cast of fully integrated characters. Alexander McCall Smith has affirmed that what interests him as a writer is “what makes the characters tick.” All of the many decent, fragile, well-intentioned folks who inhabit Corduroy Mansions’ flats and surrounding environs are believable, thinking, breathing individuals. With one exception, there is not a stereotype in the book.

That one exception is a politician with the delightfully Dickensian name of Oedipus Snark. A member of Parliament, he belongs to middle-of-the-road Liberal Democrats, rather than the rightwing Tory old guard or “New Labor.” Snark is actually above party affiliation. He’s a Machiavellian on the make, rather comically so. He never makes a political or social commitment he does not later try to dodge in the hope that he can fill the now blank space on his personal calendar with more lucrative opportunities to further his limitless, shallow ambition.

Snark is a bad-guy foil for the rest of the cast, which includes his assistant. Jenny Hedge, a serious twenty something, is faced with the unenviable task of explaining to schools, social institutes and concerned citizenry that Oedipus Snark MP must “sadly” cancel his visit. Jenny shares the second floor apartment with art-history student Caroline Jarvis and Dee Binder, the assistant manager of the Pimlico Vitamin and Supplement Agency. Dee, a catty, colon obsessed, holistic food guru, knows “what hard work is” and is not above dropping occasional hints that her flat mates are slackers.

The third floor tenant, William French, is also dropping hints to his free-loading son Eddie, who is a real slacker, to find his own apartment. William is a wine merchant and a widower. He recently passed the half-century mark and would like to spend some of his remaining years without Eddie under foot.

With the help of his caterer friend Marcia, who would very much like to change his marital status, William strategizes about bringing a dog to Corduroy Mansions. This ploy hopefully will convince Eddie, who dislikes dogs, to move out. William learns that there is a dog available for “part-ownership.” That is the plan in theory. The present owner, a pompous newspaper correspondent, really wants to get rid of the dog altogether. Enter an amazingly intelligent terrier named Freddie de la Hay who takes an instant liking to William and his expensive Belgian-made shoes. The plan to oust Eddie backfires and William is faced with sharing his apartment with Eddie, Freddie and a chewed-up pair of Belgian shoes.

While William’s plan founders, Jenny makes the terrible gaffe of telling Barbara Ragg that her boss has the weekend free. Barbara, possibly the only person in creation who is fond of Oedipus Snark, has planned a weekend in the country in the hope that it might lead to a gesture of tenderness from the self-centered MP. For once, Snark cannot evade the consequences of cancelling (regretfully) a speaking engagement at a substance abuse conference. In reprisal for having to spend quality time with Barbara, Snark fires Jenny by text message. He follows this by being so obtusely rude to Barbara that even she can longer tolerate the intolerable.

These are only a few of the interwoven strands of Corduroy Mansions. The plot builds but constantly widens and expands. More protagonists, more sub-plots, more incidents are constantly introduced. Characters like the first-floor tenant, the enigmatic, tea-loving Basil Wickramsinghe, disappear from the narrative, to re-emerge much later.

Only a supremely gifted story-teller like Smith could impose a sense of unifying purpose to what are essentially unrelated vignettes. Smith does succeed. Corduroy Mansions makes the transition from webpage to printed page. In the book’s concluding chapter, William recites a touching poem on the value of friendship that gives a voice to his literary creator’s warm sense of humanity.

Friendship is a guise of love,
And love is friendship
Dressed up for a night out.
That we are together, here at this moment,
Alive, one with another,
Is the most delicious treat:
I, for one, ask no more,
I, for one, am replete.

Yet, for all of Smith’s empathy, Corduroy Mansions ends on an ambivalent, as well as a touching, note. Despite his skill in creating likeable, believable characters, Smith does not quite evoke a depth of feeling for the ever-widening circle of protagonists.

Corduroy Mansions also suffers from inattention to its setting. With more evocative treatment, the old mansion might well have emerged as a character in its own right, not just the title of the book. The surrounding neighborhood of Pimlico, likewise, is an undiscovered country. The characters may reside there, but they don’t live there.

While reading Corduroy Mansions, comparisons frequently came to mind with a classic film comedy that brilliantly utilized the same setting to great effect. Passport to Pimlico, the 1949 comedy from the Ealing Studios, used the same locale and a similar cast of zany characters. The film’s plot focused on the absurdly funny situation in which Pimlico is discovered to be part of the defunct medieval Duchy of Burgundy, with a vault filled with buried treasure into the bargain. With a chance to avoid post-war rationing, all of the negatives of the human character swiftly come into play. But while all this nuttiness transpires, the viewer has a chance to appreciate a true community, a properly realized setting, the spirit of place.

This is sadly missing in Corduroy Mansions. With Freddie de la Hay on the premises, however, future installments of Alexander McCall Smith’s engaging series will hopefully enable Pimlico to come into its own.

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