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Trains and Lovers

Trains and Lovers

4.4 32
by Alexander McCall Smith

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Four strangers sharing a railway carriage from Edinburgh to London recall their very different experiences of love in this stand-alone from McCall Smith (Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, 2012, etc.). Andrew, a Scot en route to a new job, begins by telling of his love for Hermione, who served with him as an intern at an auction house, and its principal obstacle: her wealthy, imperious father, an alpha male who brooks no opposition. In response, Andrew's fellow passenger David, an American academic, recalls a story too intimate for him to share aloud: his unconsummated love many years ago for Bruce, a Princeton math professor's son whom he saw only during his annual vacations. Kay, an Australian who lives in Perth, recounts the romance between her parents, a Scot who settled in the Outback to manage the remote railroad station of Hope Springs and the pen pal whom he persuaded during a brief trip to Sydney to follow him back to a posting far from anything she'd ever known. Trains also play a pivotal role in the story of Hugh, who absent-mindedly disembarks at the wrong station in Gloucestershire and ends up in a relationship with Jenny. All goes well until a former boyfriend warns Hugh that Jenny is not what she seems to be--a possibility Hugh struggles to deal with. The interplay among the four stories is mostly limited to aphorisms like "[l]oving others...is the good thing we do in our lives" and "[e]verything is possible in love." A warmhearted, understated serving of comfort food.
From the Publisher

“The best thing McCall Smith has written so far. . . . He is a virtuoso storyteller.” —The Scotsman

"Four strangers--seated together by chance on a train from Edinburgh to London--strike up a conversation and share their stories with one another. Grade: A-" --Entertainment Weekly

“Wise and witty.” —Booklist
“A warm, understated serving of comfort food.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Both disarming and deeply affecting. . . . That four strangers should meet and tell such compelling stories is highly unlikely, but such is McCall Smith’s ability to draw us into his kindly world, [where] disbelief is more than willingly suspended.” —Sydney Morning Herald

“Their stories envelop us, each in its own way—we can smell the dust of the Outback and hear the gentle lap of waves against a rowboat—and they resist reducing emotion to platitudes. Love doesn’t always end happily, but even then it can end well, with hope, dignity and humanity, and that’s just what Trains and Lovers celebrates.” —The Wichita Eagle
“A lovely, quiet vacation that requires no packing, missed connections or meeting actual strangers on trains.” —Weekly Alibi (Albuquerque, NM)

“As each interwoven story gracefully unfolds, trains themselves play a part in the individual narrative arcs where the fleeting nature of love emerges as a unifying theme.” —Shelf Awareness

Praise for Alexander McCall Smith
“[McCall Smith’s writing is] beautifully precise and psychologically acute.” —The Independent (London)
“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
“McCall Smith creates unforgettable characters and stories that resonate with readers across generations.” —Booklist

Library Journal
The human yearning for love—"to give it and to receive it in that familiar battle that all of us fight with loneliness"—is at the heart of McCall Smith's wistful stand-alone novel, as four strangers on an Edinburgh-to-London rail journey share stories of romance both thwarted and fulfilled. Art history student Andrew tells how he fell for the daughter of a disapproving business magnate. Hugh thinks his schoolteacher girlfriend might have an assumed identity. David recalls his unrequited affection for another man during summers spent in rural Maine. And in the book's most affecting tale, Kay recounts her Scottish father's emigration to the desolate Australian outback and pen pal courtship of her mother. VERDICT Subtle wit, leisurely pacing, copious references to W.H. Auden—the hallmarks of McCall Smith's storytelling are in full force here, as is his penchant for quiet vignettes. That's too bad, because the other story lines are less compelling than the evocative Australian scenes, which merit a full book of their own. Nonetheless, these interludes will provide the author's fans with another soothing literary sojourn. [See Prepub Alert, 11/30/12.]—Annabel Mortensen, Skokie P.L., IL

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


“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.

Meet the Author

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has served with many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics. He lives in Scotland.

Brief Biography

Edinburgh, Scotland
Date of Birth:
August 24, 1948
Place of Birth:

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Trains and Lovers: A Novel 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. Taking a simple premise - strangers on a train passing the time with conversation - author Alexander McCall Smith paints a beautiful portrait with his gift for words. The story moves at a relaxed pace, but never gets too slow. I couldn't put it down until I was done.
lovelybookshelf More than 1 year ago
Alexander McCall Smith's new book, Trains and Lovers, is a stand-alone novel not tied to any of his series. "A friendship maybe be conceived in four hours; a short book finished and put away; a life remembered." I love Alexander McCall Smith's writing style. His characters and stories need no pageantry. He can say so much in so few words! I find it absolutely stunning. Trains and Lovers dances on the edge of being a collection of four short stories. The four travelers sporadically and spontaneously pause the story with their own introspection or to briefly converse with each other. This brings it all together into one cohesive novel. Each story held my attention page after page. I couldn't stop reading the mini-mystery that came along with the Englishman's story. But my favorite of all was the Australian woman's account of her parents and the profound impact of their very simple, well-lived, and well-loved life. Trains and Lovers is an experience; the pages flew by. Alexander McCall Smith did not disappoint! I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation for this review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is by far Alexander McCall Smith's best work to date. I loved the characterizations. The storytelling was magnificent. Two thumbs up.
Gardenseed More than 1 year ago
This is a very enjoyable book that I read in one long sitting. The characters and their stories of love found, or not, are absorbing. The author's quiet way of telling a story and setting a scene are soothing and his comments on life and love are thought -provoking. This is also a beautifully made little book, from type- design (William Martin, 1790) to size, proportions, and page design.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a fan of Alexander McCall Smith's books, mainly his #1 Ladies Detective Agency series.(I have already preordered the newest title!). Trains and Lovers was an enjoyable read as it moved quickly and held your interest.
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
Trains and Lovers is a stand-alone novel by popular Scottish author, Alexander McCall Smith. This novel takes the reader on a train journey where any boredom is dispelled by the stories that four strangers in a railway carriage relate, stories that involve trains (both real and of the art variety) and lovers (variously realised, possibly dangerous and unrequited). McCall Smith gives us four very different characters and chooses a novel way of telling four discrete tales. As always, McCall Smith offers up gentle philosophy as he touches on subjects as diverse as modern-day connectedness and loneliness; identity theft; issues of trust and how powerful and persistent the seeds of doubt, once sown, can be; the comparison of communication today with the bygone era (emails and texts versus telegrams and pen friends); and the concept of moral luck. McCall Smith’s prose is charming and evocative: “…wonderful, exotic languages including one that had clicks and whistles in it…It’s called !Kung. And it has an exclamation mark in front of it. Imagine talking !English or !French with an exclamation mark. It was lovely to listen to – rather like the sound of the wind in the reeds, or a pair of exotic birds talking to one another on the branch of a tree.” And “There are many ways of falling off the high moral ground you’ve carefully built up for yourself. Moral ground is like that – slippery at the edges.” Charming, humorous and insightful.
Yolan More than 1 year ago
This was not at all what I had expected. I was disappointed with this book. Four people met on the train and exchanged their "story" to one another either by speech or in one case only by thoughts. Then it was over.
RevGVC More than 1 year ago
I found this to be a gentle read and a lovely reminder that love takes many forms.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Alexander McCall Smith has interwoven the stories of four strangers beautifully. I found myself unable to put it down and so sorry that it had to come to an end.
KatrinaAZ More than 1 year ago
Smith is a master of exploring the personalities of everyday people. Here he takes four people on a train who begin talking to each other about falling in love. Their stories are interesting and believable and don't always go the way you expect. Delightful peek into the lives of people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She needs a master!!!!!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book would be great for a book club!!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I always enjoy Alexander McCall Smith books....
nenris More than 1 year ago
It was a fun read and I loved the characters. But I wish it had been longer and we learned even more about everyone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a fan of Alexander McCall Smith. This book, which is a single book, and not part of a series, is beautifully written. He is a master of detail, and this book provides quiet, yet pronounced moments of meaning in the life of the train passengers. Trains and Lovers carries a little more serious undertones in the book. A wonderful read whether you are a first time reader of McCall Smith, or a devoted fan. Speaking of which --- when oh when will we finally see the next installment for Corduroy Mansions? Please, please, come out with the next one in this series. I miss Freddie de la Hay and all the gang.
Cadia More than 1 year ago
I was really sorry that this book was so short,,, I really enjoyed it and much is so true to life really makes you think and rethink.