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'Chance Developments' brings characters to life from old photographs

Alexander McCall Smith creates a collection of five short stories each based on an old black-and-white photograph.

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Chance Developments
By Alexander McCall Smith
Knopf Doubleday
256 pp.

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Given the number of books he churns out (the count now stands at 80+, and that's just fiction), readers may be forgiven for wondering if "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" creator Alexander McCall Smith is an author or an industry. They might also ask whether his charm will ever begin to wear thin.

Perhaps. But if it will someday, it has not yet begun to do so in Chance Developments. McCall Smith's latest is a collection of five short stories each based on an old black-and-white photograph. The true origin and context of these images is unknown, but through them McCall Smith is able – delightfully – to bring each character to life.

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The first story follows Sister Flora out of her Catholic convent and into a life of freedom and choice. She has inherited a large fortune from her late uncle. Flora leaves for Edinburgh, resolved to follow her dreams. Questions of faith, belonging, and love are at the heart of this endearing story. 

The second story, “Angels in Italy,” begins with a journalist interviewing an elderly lady named Jenny about a recently deceased artist she knew. However, once Jenny feels on safe ground, she begins to reveal the true story that intertwined their lives. 

Edward Beaulieu, the protagonist of the third story, “Dear Ventriloquist”  has a special talent which no one will recognize. His parents’ concern about his future grows until an unusual opportunity arises. Edward follows his path to success and makes interesting friends on the way. 

The fourth story, "The Woman with the Beautiful Car,” is a light tale of love, chance, and trickery.  Ronald O’Carroll, a young teacher, has agreed to take over his father’s position at the local school. He is on the way to carrying on the life his parents have lived for decades, when he meets Anthea, the daughter of a rich speculative builder. Drawn between the mindset of accepting everything as it is and the possibility of a different life, Ronald decides to take his fate into his own hands. 

The last story, "He Wanted to Believe in Tenderness," is by far the most dramatic one. It spans three generations of a family and records their adventures in Australia before, during and after World War II. The openly stated question, “What constitutes freedom and happiness?,” is just as important as the underlying one “What holds families together?”

Each story has a different core, yet they all convince their reader that true love exists, and that life will ultimately lead our stories to their best possible ending. As McCall Smith tells us in the preface, “love lies at the heart of our experience of the world."

A soldier in the story “Angels in Italy” echoes him, telling us, “there are all sorts of possibilities. Love can occur in so many different ways, if we let it. Nothing is as clear-cut as people would like to think it is.”

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The five stories are set in Scotland, Canada, Ireland, and Australia. Climate and surrounding are not described in detail, but the diverse locations bring home the message that people – wherever they may live – all face similar life challenges and strive for the same happiness.

McCall Smith writes with clarity, humor, and thoughtfulness. He understands his protagonists well, and succeeds in letting the reader share part of their journey.  Given the fact that each of the stories is a short story, the characters are very well developed. “He Wanted to Believe in Tenderness” successfully covers the span of three generations, with surprising twists and heartfelt honesty. McCall Smith achieves this in no more than 45 pages.

The often unexpected and easygoing happy endings in the book seem at times unrealistic. Nevertheless, they affirm McCall Smith's underlying theme that life should not be taken too seriously and that all will turn out well in the end.

Even though all of the five short stories feature a variety of issues and circumstances which take the reader from one place to the next, McCall Smith's tone is so constant and reliable that readers – happily – can feel him with them, wherever his characters may go.