Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the international phenomenon 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 in Scotland and has served with many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics.
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Excerpt from book:
1. The Question of Birth Order
Elspeth Harmony’s triplets arrived in the order that was to dog them for the rest of their lives: first, second, and third. They could not do otherwise, of course, but this was to determine so much for the three boys: emotional development, confidence, academic achievement, marriage, and ultimately – with that extraordinary synchronicity that nature can sometimes muster – the leaving of this world. Had the hospital not noted their order of appearance, and recorded it on the tiny bracelets fixed round the ankle of each by a nurse, then it would have been chance, rather than seniority, that governed how they fared in relation to one another. But these bracelets were put on, and the die, so to speak, was cast.
Matthew had some inkling about the significance of birth order within a family. As an only child, he had no sibling with whom to develop rivalries and other passions, but he knew so many who did. One friend, the youngest of five boys, had once opened up to him in a maudlin moment in the Cumberland Bar. “They’ve never taken me seriously,” he said. “Never. And everything I had at home – everything – was fifthhand. Fifthhand clothes, shoes, handkerchiefs – the lot.”
Matthew thought about this for a moment. “Fourth,” he said.
His friend, absorbed in self-pity, had said, rather peevishly, “Fourth? Fourth what?”
“Hand,” said Matthew. “It’s been through four hands by the time it reaches the fifth child. Therefore – fourthhand.”
Self-pity does not appreciate pedantry. “Fifth,” said Matthew’s friend. “Five owners – fifthhand.”
Matthew had stuck to his guns. “No. It depends on the number of hands it has been through. And something that’s secondhand has been through two sets of hands: the original owner’s and the new owner’s.”
“That means you have to count the fifth owner too,” said the friend. “My clothes were fifthhand. Five owners, including me.”
Matthew had lost the point. “You’re probably right. But anyway . . .”
“Well, it was awful, I can tell you. And it’s carried on all my life. Do you know my oldest brother? You’ve met him, haven’t you? He still treats me as if I’m six. He expresses surprise if he phones and my wife says I’m in the pub. He thinks I’m not old enough. He still thinks that.”
“It could be worse,” said Matthew. “You could have no siblings – like me. Nobody to compete with. Nobody to think you’re too young. Nobody to dilute parental attention.”
He was determined, of course, that he and Elspeth should make as few mistakes as possible in bringing up their triplets. A whole library of books had been purchased – each claiming to be the definitive guide to the raising of infants and young children. They had gone to a special talk put on for the parents of twins – prospective multiples had been the term used – and had listened intently to the advice that one should seek to achieve a balance between economy of scale and recognition of individuality.
“Your twin is a person, and not just a twin,” said the lecturer. “I call t“Full of charm, gentleness and penetrating insight.”
—The Daily Express (Scotland)
“You see the whole extent of McCall Smith’s gentle comedy of manners. . . . While it is written with abundant wit . . . there are equally large dollops of wisdom too.”
—Scotland on Sunday
Praise for the 44 Scotland Street Series
“Sweet . . . Graceful . . . Wonderful. . . . Gentle but powerfully addicting fiction.”
“McCall Smith’s assessments of fellow humans are piercing and profound. . . . [His] depictions of Edinburgh are vivid and seamless.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Irresistible . . . Packed with the charming characters, piercing perceptions and shrewd yet generous humor that have become McCall Smith’s cachet.”
“McCall Smith’s plots offer wit, charm, and intrigue in equal doses.”
“The most genial of writers and the most gentle of satirists. . . . [The] characters are great fun . . . [and] McCall Smith treats all of them with affection.”
—Rocky Mountain News