I have been wanting to read something by this author for some time now, and was excited to dive into this particular novel. I was immediately captured by the book jacket; I loved the image of the solitary female staring out at the ocean against a tropical backdrop. And when I read the synopsis of the story on the inside of the jacket and saw that the story took place in several of my favourite places — Cayman Island, Scotland and England — I knew I needed to revisit them through this author’s words.
The story is based on the premise that for everyone there is only one true love. McCall Smith commences the story with an adult character, Amanda, and her emotional dalliance with a family friend. While this is happening, we are introduced to Amanda’s daughter, Clover, and her best friend, James, whom we learn is the object of her desire, her raison d’etre, her one true love, etc. She develops an emotionally unhealthy attachment to the idea that he is the only one for her and tracks him incessantly trying to convince herself that is to no end. All of the characters she encounters along the way attempt to persuade her of this, but, as we all know, you can only be a sounding board of reason; the individual needs to come to that conclusion on their own and in their own time, or not.
I was carried away by the ebb and flow of the first part of the book, which took place on Cayman Island. I think the author has a pretty good sense of island dynamics, and this really shone through in his characters. I also really loved the back and forth of the story between the interactions of the adults followed by the experiences of the children. But at one point that particular mode of storytelling comes to a halt and the reader is all of a sudden mired in the angst of Clover for what seemed like forever. There are several points in the story line of the daughter where the author jumps ahead by years — e.g., “Over the years that followed…” — and there were several points as I was reading that I wished the story would jump ahead like that.
I do think the author captured the voice and tone of the younger female character, and it did make me think back to some of the heartbreak encountered growing up when you cannot see beyond that particular point in time, but it was almost too much. Perhaps I was feeling the character’s frustration, but I found myself rooting for Clover and James not to get together in the end, and I am pretty sure this is not what the author was going for. Many of the secondary characters just became lost, particularly the adults in the story. So, while the goal may have been worthwhile, it was ultimately unrewarding – as a reader, in any event. When I finished reading the book, I wondered what the point of telling this particular story was. I did not feel like I had a good sense of who most of the secondary characters really were. For a story carried on the romantic anguish of one young girl, it just did not have enough substance – it was one note for too many pages.
To me, the book is written towards an adult audience, particularly female readers. I am not sure what a male reader would get from it, as most of the characters were not that well developed. It would have been interesting to parallel the emotions of the younger male characters as opposed to including the adult relationships that just seemed to drift away in the course of telling the story. Older youth may get something from the story, particularly from some of the descriptions of the relationship between the mother and daughter, and they may be able to relate to the torment of the mono-focus of young love, but I am not sure this less-than-cautionary tale provides substantive enough input either.
Reviewed by Cathy Leipciger