Alexander McCall Smith is the prolific writer of novels, children’s books, and academic texts probably best known for his bestselling mystery series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He has a vast audience of international readers who buy millions of copies of his books. He has built a thirty-plus year career writing at a rapid pace and publishing a book or more each year, at least for the last two decades. When My Italian Bulldozer was published in 2016, it was one of just five books bearing his name that were published that year. After reading My Italian Bulldozer, I wonder if he maybe ought to slow down a bit.
The journey is rough from the beginning. The clunky opening chapter features three chronological jumps backward to recount different parts of the same conversation between author Paul and his editor Gloria about the dissolution of Paul’s four-year romantic relationship with Becky who has run off with her personal trainer. The time jumps were unnecessary and confusing, and the narrative structure of the chapter would have been stronger without the pointless chronological trickery. This conversation could have been a great opportunity to establish the two characters involved, but instead I spent half of my time wondering why the chapter was being presented in such an odd manner. When a reader begins a book, they want to trust the author but after this first chapter, my trust of McCall Smith was already tenuous.
After the first chapter, Paul crosses the threshold into the main adventure of the book. This part of the story begins well enough as Paul, the author of a popular series of food culture books, is on his way to Italy to spend three weeks in the Tuscan countryside putting the final touches on his most recent book, Paul Stuart’s Tuscan Table. This premise tugs at the reader’s adventurous and romantic strings, hinting at that travel fantasy so many of us share, that desire for true freedom. I took a hesitant, hopeful step toward trusting the author. It was all downhill from there.
A series of completely ridiculous scenarios reveal an unlikable main character with terrible decision-making skills. It is as though McCall Smith has a collection of flashcards of writing prompts and drew from the deck at random to construct the story. Once Paul arrives at his destination, the hilltop Tuscan town of Montalcino, he experiences a series of romantic entanglements that reveal Paul to be one of the most fickle characters I have ever seen. Add to this some awful dialogue featuring sentence structures no real speaking human uses, an American character who uses British speech patterns and lingo, and season with a dollop of borderline misogyny. I present to you a real line of dialogue from Alexander McCall Smith’s My Italian Bulldozer:
“She must have been imagining things. Women can be funny about bulldozers.”
What the hecking flip? Let me climb out onto a limb and claim that the vast majority of people, regardless of gender, do not think about bulldozers enough to form any kind of opinion about them. And there is certainly no foundation to support such a generalization about women. By this point in the book, my trust in the author had flatlined but this made me want to throw the book across the room. The dialogue might have been acceptable had the author been constructing a character who expresses a low opinion of women or an archaic view of gender roles, but this is the only such statement or action by that character nor does any other character respond to it in any way. Not to agree with it, not to challenge it. Instead, it is just a stupid line of dialogue that says nothing about anybody except the author.
I generally do not notice an author’s style unless it is exceptionally clever or exceptionally bad. The latter applies here. Granted, this is the first and likely only Alexander McCall Smith book I have or will ever read, but after reading My Italian Bulldozer, I have decided his grade school teachers never uttered the phrase “show, don’t tell”. And what is this thing he does where he states what a character is thinking and then immediately has the character say what they were thinking? It is as though his editor told him the book was too short –my paperback copy is still only 232 pages with half-page character headers—and instructed him to write more. To make matters worse, on some occasions, the thought-then-spoken dialogue is followed by further thought of the character explaining the purpose of their dialogue. To whom is this explanation directed? Does the author not trust his readers to figure out his clever prose or is he just padding his word count? I do not know which offense is worse.
The titular bulldozer is a largely pointless gimmick but does pay off at the end in a completely unsatisfying way. There are so many missed opportunities in this story. The winemaker, whose life we are told is drastically changed by the bulldozer, should have had a much bigger role in the story. He could have been the perfect mentor character, helping Paul navigate the romantic subplots using winemaking and cooking as metaphors for the various stages of love and loss. It was an opportunity for a strong friendship that would have made the this final bulldozer scene a triumphant one for the winemaker and for Paul, but because every character in this novel is as structurally sound as wet toilet paper, this climactic moment and all moments leading up to it mean nothing.
By the book’s flaccid conclusion, I was left with my head in my hands. I rarely feel the urge to abandon a book I am not enjoying, wanting to give the author the every possible chance to turn things around, but this is a book I would have dumped had I not been reading it for a book club. An inconsistent protagonist, weak supporting characters, bad dialogue, and an unsatisfying story make My Italian Bulldozer a disappointing novel I would like to forget but will probably remember for a long time so I can tell all of my friends and family to skip it.