There is something intrinsically romantic about train travel – the idea of strangers’ lives temporarily touching as they are forced into fleeting contact with one another; all those different stories sitting side by side. Alexander McCall Smith’s latest offering, Trains and Lovers, is built on this notion, centring on four passengers from different backgrounds and parts of the world, who meet on a train from Edinburgh to London. His characters defy the unwritten rule of not acknowledging others on public transport, striking up a conversation that leads to the revelation of intimate details of their lives. The stories they tell are about love in its various forms and also all feature trains in some way, creating a narrative structure that jumps from their conversation into each person’s tale and back again.
The novel has its flaws: the premise feels improbable and occasionally forced, particularly the constant appearance of trains in each internal narrative; the characters aren’t always developed enough in the brevity of each story; the changes in narrative voice are sometimes a little jarring. The book can also seem quaint and old-fashioned at times; despite discussing several love affairs, sex is only alluded to once, and then somewhat prudishly.
However, perhaps this is the novel’s charm. It isn’t representative of the real world, but of a cosy and cushioned existence, painting an optimistic picture of a reality in which strangers on trains can have eloquent and contemplative conversations about love and romantic ideals. It is as sweet and comforting as a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream and tiny marshmallows and, while sometimes feeling like a Richard Curtis film in book form, avoids sentimentality or triteness. The stories’ endings are never neatly tied up, setting them apart from the happy-ever-afters of most romantic fiction. The tales are told at a gentle pace, focusing on feeling rather than action, and despite our initial impatience for something significant to happen, we soon realise that this is not the point. McCall Smith presents us with the poetry of everyday (if slightly idealised) lives and loves, and implies that this should be enough to hold our interest.
This isn’t a book that will set the world on fire, but it was never intended to be. And while its characters might not stick with you for much longer than the aforementioned hot chocolate, most of us can still take something from it, even if it’s just an awareness that the harrumphing businessman next to us on the train might well have once been in love. That said, I still won’t be striking up a conversation with him anytime soon.
Trains and Lovers is published by Polygon and is available here.