Synopses & Reviews
“I think that’s a fishing boat.”
It was. He saw it from the train, but not for more than a minute or two, as the line followed that bit of coastline only for a short time before it suddenly swerved off, as railway lines will do. The view of the North Sea was lost, and trees closed in; there was the blue of the sea one moment and then the blurred green of foliage rapidly passing the window; there was slanting morning sun, like an intermittent signal flashed through the trees.
This is the story of four people, all strangers to one another, who met on that train, and of how love touched their lives, in very different ways. Love is nothing out of the ordinary, even if we think it is; even if we idealise it, celebrate it in poetry, sentimentalise it in coy valentines. Love happens to just about everyone; it is like measles or the diseases of childhood; it is as predictable as the losing of milk teeth, or the breaking of a boy’s voice. It may visit us at any time, in our youth but also when we are much older and believe we are beyond its reach; but we are not. It has been described as a toothache, a madness, a divine intoxication—metaphors that reflect the disturbing effect it has on our lives. It may bring surprise, joy, despair and, occasionally, perfect happiness.
But for each person who is made happy by love, there will be many for whom it turns out to be a cause of regret. That is because it can be so fleeting; one moment it may take our breath away, the next it may leave us bereft. When it does that, love can be like a haunting, staying with us for year after year; we know that it is gone, but somehow we persuade ourselves that it is still there. The heart has more than its fair share of ghosts, and these ghosts may be love, in any of its many forms. I knew one who fell deeply in love at nineteen—smitten, overwhelmed; astonished to find that all he wanted to think about was the other; unbelieving, at first, that this had happened to him. Thirty years later, he found the person he had loved, to whom timidity, if not shame itself, had prevented him from declaring his feelings, regularly coming to him in his dreams. So much had happened in those intervening years, but none of it had been shared, as life had taken them in very different directions. Nobody would choose to be in love like that, to hold on so strongly to something that was no longer there. Yet we admire such instances of tenacity, finding nobility in loss and in the way in which some people bear it.
If it were not for the train journey on that day, these four would never have met. Journeys may be like that, may bring together people who would otherwise never have known of each other’s existence. In that respect, long journeys have something in common with military service or boarding school, or even the shared experience of some natural disaster. Such things bring us into contact with people we would never have encountered but for the sharing of danger or unhappiness.
Journeys are not only about places, they are also about people, and it may be the people, rather than the places, that we remember. Those with whom one shares a carriage on the Trans-Siberian Railway may well be remembered, even if the names of the places in which the train stops are soon lost. Of Kirov, Perm, Omsk and Ussuriysk, all of them stops on that long journey, most travellers, other than the locals, will probably remember only Omsk—for its sheer, prosaic finality, and for the fact that of all possible railway stations in the world, we are here in one called Omsk. I know nothing of Omsk, but it seems to me that its name is redolent of ending, a full stop; not a place for honeymoons or rhapsodies. Omsk.
Or Adelstrop. Yes, I remember Adelstrop, for the train stopped there in the heat—that is Edward Thomas. The poet was on a train journey into rural Oxfordshire, at a time when there was still an England of quiet villages and hedge-bound fields, and when a train might unexpectedly draw to a halt at a small place and there might be birdsong audible behind the hissing of steam. Nothing happens there, other than the stopping of a train and the escape of pent-up steam, but it brings home how suddenly and surprisingly we may be struck by the beauty of a particular place and moment.
Edward Thomas was not alone in sensing the poetic possibilities of the train. Auden’s “Night Mail” is entirely concerned with a rail journey: This is the Night Mail crossing the border / Bringing the cheque and the postal order. You can hear the train in those lines; you can feel its rocking motion.
And then there is the poet Kenneth Koch, who while travelling in Kenya came to a railroad crossing at which this sign was posted: One train may hide another. This was meant, of course, as a warning to drivers of the fact that the train you see may not be the only train to reckon with, but it also meant, as Koch points out in his poem, that there are many things in this life that conceal other things. One letter may mean another is on the way; one hitch-hiker may deliberately hide another one by the side of the road; offer to carry one bag and you may find there is another one hidden behind it, with the result that you must carry two. And so on through life. Do not count on things coming in ones.
Trains may hide one another, but they may also hide from us what they have in store—the meetings, the disclosures, the exchanged glances, the decisions we make or the insights that strike us on a journey. Trains are everyday, prosaic things, but they can be involved in, be the agents of, so much else, including that part of our human life that for so many far outweighs any other—our need for love—to give it and to receive it in that familiar battle that all of us fight with loneliness.
As they journey by rail from Edinburgh to London, four strangers pass the time by sharing tales of trains that have changed their lives. A keen-eyed Scotsman recounts how he turned a friendship with a coworker into a romance by spotting an anachronistic train in an eighteenth-century painting. An Australian woman shares how her parents fell in love and spent their life together running a railroad siding in the remote Outback. A middle-aged American patron of the arts sees two young men saying goodbye in a train station and recalls his own youthful crush on another man. And a young Englishman describes how exiting his train at the wrong station allowed him to meet an intriguing woman whom he impulsively invited to dinner-and into his life.
Here is Alexander McCall Smith at his most subtle and enchanting, exploring the nature of love—and trains—in this utterly captivating story.
Reading Group Guide
“McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humor, his gentleness and humanity, and his ability to evoke a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension have endeared his books to readers.”
—The New York Times
“Alexander McCall Smith writes about the enduring, patient qualities of love.”
—The Times of London
The questions contained in this guide are designed to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Trains and Lovers. A stand-alone novel from one of the today’s most endearing and prolific authors, this newest gem studies the way strangers thrown together may briefly, unexpectedly, open up their lives.
1. What is the importance of poetry in this novel, and in life? Which poets are discussed and why does Alexander McCall Smith choose these particular poets? Do you agree with the narrator that trains are poetic? How?
2. “Trains are everyday, prosaic things, but they can be involved in, be the agents of, so much else” (p. 7). What is the narrator referring to here about trains and life?
3. Do you agree with the statement that our need for love is “that part of our human life that for so many far outweighs any other” (p. 7)? Is love our most basic need?
4. Describe the four people on the train into whose lives we get a glimpse. Why do you think McCall Smith has chosen this particular assortment of four? Why not two men and two women? Why not all older characters who might have more stories and more experience with love? With which of the characters do you most identify? Whose story did you like the best? Why?
5. What simple message can you distill from each of the four characters’ stories?
6. Do you believe that a life achieving “a well-kept station and some flowers in the desert” (p. 239) is enough as long as you have love? Why or why not?
7. At the close of the novel, as the train enters King’s Cross station and the four are saying goodbye and going their separate ways, Kay contemplates that “each of us has his or her reasons, for making this journey, for being as we are, for continuing with the lives we lead” (p. 240) and that we all travel ordinary paths “touched here and there with moments of understanding and insight, and sheer marvel.” What is the epiphany Kay comes to, which summarizes the underlying theme of the novel?
8. The Examined Life by Robert Nozick is referenced in Trains and Lovers. Have you read this philosophical best seller, and, if so, how do you feel about it? One of the characters says that “the unexamined life was not worth leading” (p. 198), and in order to make sense of life, we need to look at our individual paths, our stories, our decisions, and so on, and ask why. Do you agree or disagree?
9. Why does David not tell his story aloud?
10. How do you feel about each of the stories? Do you sympathize with the characters and their predicaments? Does each of the stories offer universal life lessons?
11. Natural beauty is important in all of McCall Smith’s novels. Kay’s mother created beauty in an unexpected place and brought happiness to her husband, herself, and many travelers. How does natural beauty affect you? Do you surround yourself with it, seek it out, or create it yourself?
12. Andrew doesn’t create beauty but studies it in the history of art and working at an auction house. Against the wishes of his parents, he studied art history instead of accountancy, law, or medicine. This, he said, “led me out of the narrow world of my life in a small Scottish town and into a world of light and intellectual passion” (p. 20). Were his parents wrong to wish otherwise? Was he? Or must everyone follow his or her own dreams and paths?
13. “Journeys are not only about places, they are also about people, and it may be the people, rather than the places, that we remember” (p. 5). Discuss this statement and give examples from your own life.
14. Ethical dilemmas always arise in McCall Smith novels and the characters, especially in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Isabel Dalhousie series, deal with them in gallant and sometimes surprising ways. What are the ethical dilemmas in this novel? How do the characters deal with them and how are they resolved?
15. How does forgiveness play a role in this novel, particularly in the stories of Andrew and Hugh? And what does the narrator imply about judging others too harshly?
16. Why do you think McCall Smith chose the simple plotline of four travelers swapping stories for this novel about love? How does the language and rhythm correspond to the message of Trains and Lovers? What is the author saying about love and about life? If you’ve read McCall Smith’s other novels, do you agree that this is the most romantic of his works?