Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounters of the Romantic Kind by Alexander McCall Smith

Synopsis

“Pictures capture moments in time, presenting the viewer with a window into another life. But a picture can go only so far. Who are the people in the image? What are their fears? What are their dreams?

The fourteen captivating tales in this collection are all inspired by photos from the Times of London archive. A young woman finds unexpected love while perusing Egyptian antiquities. A family is forever fractured when war comes to Penang, in colonial Malaysia. Iron Jelloid tablets help to reveal a young man’s inner strength. And twin sisters discover that it’s never too late to forge a new path–even when standing at the altar.

There are big stories behind these simple images. Though at first glance they may appear to represent small moments, these photographs in fact speak volumes, uncovering possibilities of love, friendship, and happiness. With his indomitable charm, Alexander McCall Smith takes us behind the lens to explore the hidden lives of those photographed; in so doing, he reveals the humanity in us all.”

-Synopsis from Goodreads

Review

Cover of Pianos and Flowers by Alexander McCall Smith
Cover image from Goodreads

Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounters of the Romantic Kind by Alexander McCall Smith was recently given to me as a gift. I was excited to read it both because I have yet to read any of McCall Smith’s work, and because it has been quite a while since I have read a short story collection.

Once I read the author’s note about how these stories came about, I knew I was going to love this collection. Each of the stories in this collection were inspired by old photographs which McCall Smith looked to for inspiration. They are all of a certain decade, think early 1900s to 1940s, so there is a quaint, old-time feel to each of them. Each was about ten pages, give or take, and can be read in one sitting. This made for a quick read all around.

I will recap two of my favorite stories, briefly, below.

Sphinx

This story was inspired by a photo of a young woman sitting at the foot of large statue of a sphinx. In McCall Smith’s imagined version of what’s happening in this photo, the young woman has recently moved to London. She meets a man at the sphinx statue one day, and they get to talking about Egypt and how interested they both are in hieroglyphs and Egyptian history. He asks if he can write to her, and she gives him her address. She eagerly awaits to hear from him, but weeks go by with no word.

Eventually she tries to meet someone new. She starts dating a perfectly fine man, but there is just something missing. She can’t stop wondering about the man she met at the sphinx statue and what could have happened that prevented him from writing to her. She goes so far as to leave notes for him at the statue, but the notes are never answered.

Will she ever get in touch with him, and how can they possibly cross paths in a city as big as London? You can imagine that without phones, internet, and social media, it would be next to impossible to track someone down. Will they ultimately cross paths or will she be wondering about him for the rest of her life?


Duty

This story is about two twin sisters, Claire and Dotty, who have grown up with specific personalities based on the fact that they have always been told that Claire is older than Dotty. Their aunt believed it was important for them to grow up knowing that, and it has proven to shape their personalities and demeanors. The sisters spend their lives dressing alike and doing everything together. After high school, they both become nurses and work at the same hospital for several years.

One day, a man named Freddie comes to the house to see Claire and they hit it off right away. Once they are a couple, Claire introduces Dotty to one of Freddie’s friends, William, who she thinks will be a good match for her. Dotty decides that he is, mostly because Claire told her so, and they become a foursome.

They all get along so well, that they even decide to have a joint wedding. But everything seems a little too perfect; are Freddie and William really the right matches for Claire and Dotty? That question is answered at the last second before the wedding.


Some of the other stories in this collection that I thought were standouts were “Iron Jelloids” and “Urchins,” but they were all memorable in their own way. Overall I really enjoyed this collection. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a light short story collection. I would definitely be open to reading more of Alexander McCall Smith’s work in the future.

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