The Second Worst Restaurant in France

The Second Worst Restaurant in France by Alexander McCall Smith

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

I will be the first to offer plaudits to the genius and gentle humor of Alexander McCall Smith. However, this sequel to the free-standing My Italian Bulldozer reads like it was the product of the publishers, not the author. There was no reason for a sequel other than to grab some extra bucks. The first book finished with the protagonist Paul growing in understanding about himself and love. In this book, Paul stagnates. The plot stagnates. I would even argue that much like a book by Henry James or Marcel Proust, whom the two lead characters reference several times, nothing happens for 300 pages.

The novel picks up several months after the end of the previous one. Paul is dating Gloria, but unlike his previous relationship, where it was all erotic feelings and no depth, this time the relationship is all depth and no eros. So naturally Paul breaks up. Again. And goes off to a different country to finish his new manuscript unhindered by his ex-girlfriend. Again. But this time he has an eccentric third cousin accompanying him, offering her opinion on everything, even if it is not requested.

Chloe was a bit like glitter: on the surface a shiny novelty meant to entertain, but she became an ever-growing irritant that you just couldn’t shake. Her opinions were erratic, incoherent, not aligned to any particular walk of life or philosophy. Sometimes she came off as a moral absolutist. Then the next instance, she would make excuses for people’s poor behavior: “the end justifies the means,” a clear mantra of moral relativism. And while I typically enjoy AMS’s philosophical meanderings (why read his books if you don’t?), the majority of the book was made up of these rambling sophistries with only an inkling of plot interspersed between.

Which is why I contend the book was not Smith’s idea, but his publishers. It’s just too incomplete. The characters, with the exception of Paul, Chloe and Gloria, are one-dimensional. (There are twin sisters in the book whose dialogue is literally interchangeable). Nothing happens to Paul. He doesn’t grow or change as in the previous novel. The ending is vague. Is Paul staying in France permanently? Is it temporary as he gets his show up and running? What exactly are his feelings for Gloria? Which of Chloe’s many stories were true?

I really hope either this is the end of Paul Stuart, or that Alexander McCall Smith finds better inspiration for his next outing.

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