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On Sale: February 11, 2014
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-90826-1
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

The author of the best-selling and universally adored No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series now gives us The Forever Girl, a novel about love and following one’s heart, and the unexpected places to which this can lead us.
 
Amanda and her husband, David, feel fortunate to be raising their son and daughter in the close-knit community of ex-pats on Grand Cayman Island, an idyllic place for children to grow up. Their firstborn, Sally, has always listened to her heart, deciding at age four that she would rather be called Clover and then, a few years later, falling in love with her best friend, James.
 
But the comforting embrace of island life can become claustrophobic for adults, especially when they are faced with difficult situations. At the same time that Clover falls in love with James, Amanda realizes that she has fallen out of love with David . . . and that she is interested in someone else. While Amanda tries to navigate the new path her heart is leading her down, Clover finds, much to her dismay, that James seems to be growing away from her. And when they leave the island for boarding school—James to England and Clover to Scotland—she feels she may have lost him for good. As Clover moves on to university, seldom seeing James but always carrying him in her heart, she finds herself torn between a desire to go forward with her life and the old feelings that she just can’t shed.
 
Through the lives of Clover and James, and Amanda and David, acclaimed storyteller Alexander McCall Smith tells a tale full of love and heartbreak, humor and melancholy, that beautifully demonstrates the myriad ways in which love shapes our lives.

Excerpt

I have often wondered about the proposition that for each of us there is one great love in our lives, and one only. Even if that is not true—and experience tells most of us it is not—there are those, in legend at least, who believe there is only one person in this world whom they will ever love with all their heart. Tristan persisted in his love of Isolde in spite of everything; Orpheus would not have risked the Underworld, one imagines, for anyone but Eurydice. Such stories are touching, but the cynic might be forgiven for saying: yes, but what if the person you love does not reciprocate? What if Isolde had found somebody she preferred to Tristan, or Eurydice had been indifferent to Orpheus?
 
The wise thing to do in cases of unreturned affection is to look elsewhere—you cannot force another to love you—and to choose somebody else. In matters of the heart, though, as in all human affairs, few of us behave in a sensible way. We can do without love, of course, and claim it does not really play a major part in our lives. We may do that, but we still hope. Indifferent to all the evidence, hope has a way of surviving every discouragement, every setback or reversal; hope sustains us, enables us to believe we will find the person we have wanted all along.
 
Sometimes, of course, that is exactly what happens.
 
This story started when the two people involved were children. It began on a small island in the Caribbean, continued in Scotland, and in Australia, and came to a head in Singapore. It took place over sixteen years, beginning as one of those intense friendships of childhood and becoming, in time, something quite different. This is the story of that passion. It is a love story, and like most love stories it involves more than just two people, for every love has within it the echoes of other loves. Our story is often our parents’ story, told again, and with less variation than we might like to think. The mistakes, as often as not, are exactly the same mistakes our parents made, as human mistakes so regularly are.
 
The Caribbean island in question is an unusual place. Grand Cayman is still a British territory, by choice of its people rather than by imposition, one of the odd corners that survive from the monstrous shadow that Victoria cast over more than half the world. Today it is very much in the sphere of American influence—Florida is only a few hundred miles away, and the cruise ships that drop anchor off George Town usually fly the flag of the United States, or are American ships under some other flag of convenience. But the sort of money that the Cayman Islands attract comes from nowhere; has no nationality, no characteristic smell.
 
Grand Cayman is not much to look at, either on the map, where it is a pin-prick in the expanse of blue to the south of Cuba and the west of Jamaica, or in reality, where it is a coral-reefed island barely twenty miles long and a couple of miles in width. With smallness come some advantages, amongst them a degree of immunity to the hurricanes that roar through the Caribbean each year. Jamaica is a large and tempting target for these winds, and is hit quite regularly. There is no justice in the storms that flatten the houses of the poor in places like Kingston or Port Antonio, wood and tin constructions so much more vulnerable than the bricks and mortar of the better-off. Grand Cayman, being relatively minuscule, is usually missed, although every few decades the trajectory of a hurricane takes it straight across the island. Because there are no natural salients, much of the land is inundated by the resultant storm surge. People may lose their every possession to the wind—cars, fences, furniture and fridges, animals too, can all be swept out to sea and never seen again; boats end up in trees; palm trees bend double and are broken with as much ease as one might snap a pencil or the stem of a garden plant.
 
Grand Cayman is not fertile. The soil, white and sandy, is not much use for growing crops, and indeed the land, if left to its own devices, would quickly revert to mangrove swamp. Yet people have occupied the island for several centuries, and scratched a living there. The original inhabitants were turtle-hunters. They were later joined by various pirates and wanderers for whom a life far away from the prying eye of officialdom was attractive. There were fishermen, too, as this was long before over-fishing was an issue, and the reef brought abundant marine life.
 
Then, in the second half of the twentieth century, it occurred to a small group of people that Grand Cayman could become an off-shore financial centre. As a British territory it was stable, relatively incorrupt (by the standards of Central America and the shakier parts of the Caribbean), and its banks would enjoy the tutelage of the City of London. Unlike some other states that might have nursed similar ambitions, Grand Cayman was an entirely safe place to store money.
 
“Sort out the mosquitoes,” they said. “Build a longer runway. The money will flow in. You’ll see. Cayman will take off.” Cayman, rather than the Cayman Islands, is what people who live there call the place—an affectionate shortening, with the emphasis on the man rather than the cay.
 
Banks and investors agreed, and George Town became the home of a large expatriate community, a few who came as tax exiles, but most of them hard-working and conscientious accountants or trust managers. The locals watched with mixed feelings. They were reluctant to give up their quiet and rather sleepy way of life but found it difficult to resist the prosperity the new arrivals brought. And they liked, too, the high prices they could get for their previously worthless acres. A tiny white-board home by the sea, nothing special, could now be sold for a price that could keep one in comfort for the rest of one’s life. For most, the temptation was just too great; an easy life was now within grasp for many Caymanians, as Jamaicans could be brought in to do the manual labour, to serve in the restaurants frequented by the visitors from the cruise ships, to look after the bankers’ children. A privileged few were given status, as they called it, and were allowed to live permanently on the islands, these being the ones who were really needed, or, in some cases, who knew the right people—the people who could ease the passage of their residence petitions. Others had to return to the places from which they came, which were usually poorer, more dangerous, and more tormented by mosquitoes.
 
Most children do not choose their own name, but she did. She was born Sally, and was called that as a baby, but at about the age of four, having heard the name in a story, she chose to be called Clover. At first her parents treated this indulgently, believing that after a day or two of being Clover she would revert to being Sally. Children got strange notions into their heads; her mother had read somewhere of a child who had decided for almost a complete week that he was a dog and had insisted on being fed from a bowl on the floor. But Clover refused to go back to being Sally, and the name stuck.
 
Clover’s father, David, was an accountant who had been born and brought up in Scotland. After university he had started his professional training in London, in the offices of one of the large international accountancy firms. He was particularly able—he saw figures as if they were a landscape, instinctively understanding their topography—and this led to his being marked out as a high flier. In his first year after qualification, he was offered a spell of six months in the firm’s office in New York, an opportunity he seized enthusiastically. He joined a squash club and it was there, in the course of a mixed tournament, that he met the woman he was to marry.
 
This woman was called Amanda. Her parents were both psychiatrists, who ran a joint practice on the Upper East Side. Amanda invited David back to her parents’ apartment after she had been seeing him for a month. They liked him, but she could tell that they were anxious about her seeing somebody who might take her away from New York. She was an only child, and she was the centre of their world. This young man, this accountant, was likely to be sent back to London, would want to take Amanda with him, and they would be left in New York. They put a brave face on it and said nothing about their fears; shortly before David’s six months were up, though, Amanda told her parents that they wanted to become engaged. Her mother wept at the news, although in private.
 
The internal machinations of the accounting firm came to the rescue. Rather than returning to London, David was to be sent to Grand Cayman, where the firm was expanding its office. This was only three hours’ flight from New York—through Miami—and would therefore be less of a separation. Amanda’s parents were mollified.
 
They left New York and settled into a temporary apartment in George Town, arranged for them by the firm. A few months later they found a new house near an inlet called Smith’s Cove, not much more than a mile from town. They moved in a week or two before their wedding, which took place in a small church round the corner. They chose this church because it was the closest one to them. It was largely frequented by Jamaicans, who provided an ebullient choir for the occasion, greatly impressing the friends who had travelled down from New York for the ceremony.
 
Fourteen months later, Clover was born. Amanda sent a photograph to her mother in New York: Here’s your lovely grandchild. Look at her eyes. Just look at them. She’s so beautiful—already! At two days!
 
“Fond parents,” said Amanda’s father.
 
His wife studied the photograph. “No,” she said. “She’s right.”
 
“Five days ago,” he mused. “Born on a Thursday.”
 
“Has far to go …”
 
He frowned. “Far to go?”
 
She explained. “The song. You remember it … Wednesday’s child is full of woe; Thursday’s child has far to go …”
 
“That doesn’t mean anything much.”
 
She shrugged; she had always felt that her husband lacked imagination; so many men did, she thought. “Perhaps that she’ll have to travel far to get what she wants. Travel far—or wait a long time, maybe.”
 
He laughed at the idea of paying any attention to such things. “You’ll be talking about her star sign next. Superstitious behaviour. I have to deal with that all the time with my patients.”
 
“I don’t take it seriously,” she said. “You’re too literal. These things are fun—that’s all.”
 
He smiled at her. “Sometimes.”
 
“Sometimes what?”
 
“Sometimes fun. Sometimes not.”
Alexander McCall Smith

About Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith - The Forever Girl

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the beloved, bestselling 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 also the author of numerous children’s books. 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 was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana. He lives in Scotland. Visit his website at www.alexandermccallsmith.com.

Praise

Praise

“What may seem like an ordinary love tangle is a very rich stew of contemporary mores and a great stage for both comedy and heartbreak.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Touchingly conceived. . . . In the end we see that love unfulfilled still makes a difference.” —Library Journal

Praise for Alexander McCall Smith:

“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’s novels are beautifully precise and psychologically acute.” —The Independent (London)
 
“A vivid observer and an elegant writer.” —The Plain Dealer
 
“A virtuoso storyteller.” —The Scotsman
 
“A writer who charms many readers . . . McCall Smith’s characters are well-drawn and alive.”  —Providence Journal
 
“McCall Smith’s accomplished novels [are] dependent on small gestures redolent with meaning and main characters blessed with pleasing personalities . . . These novels are gentle probes into the mysteries of human nature.” —Newsday

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

This guide is designed to enhance your reading group’s focus on some of the main concepts in this book and to enable readers to explore and share different perspectives. Feel free to wander in your discussions, and use this as a guideline only!

About the Guide

The author of the best-selling and universally adored No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series now gives us The Forever Girl, a novel about love and following one’s heart, and the unexpected places to which this can lead us.

Amanda and her husband, David, feel fortunate to be raising their son and daughter in the close-knit community of ex-pats on Grand Cayman Island, an idyllic place for children to grow up. Their firstborn, Sally, has always listened to her heart, deciding at age four that she would rather be called Clover and then, a few years later, falling in love with her best friend, James.

But the comforting embrace of island life can become claustrophobic for adults, especially when they are faced with difficult situations. At the same time that Clover falls in love with James, Amanda realizes that she has fallen out of love with David . . . and that she is interested in someone else. While Amanda tries to navigate the new path her heart is leading her down, Clover finds, much to her dismay, that James seems to be growing away from her. And when they leave the island for boarding school—James to England and Clover to Scotland—she feels she may have lost him for good. As Clover moves on to university, seldom seeing James but always carrying him in her heart, she finds herself torn between a desire to go forward with her life and the old feelings that she just can’t shed.

Through the lives of Clover and James, and Amanda and David, acclaimed storyteller Alexander McCall Smith tells a tale full of love and heartbreak, humor and melancholy, that beautifully demonstrates the myriad ways in which love shapes our lives.

About the Author

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the 44 Scotland Street series, the Portuguese Irregular Verb series, and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is also the author of numerous children’s books. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has served on many international organizations concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe, and taught law at the University of Botswana. He lives in Scotland with his wife, and plays the bassoon in the Really Terrible Orchestra.

Discussion Guides

1. The opening of The Forever Girl is different from those of other Alexander McCall Smith novels in that the narrator uses the first person and addresses the reader directly. What is the author hoping to accomplish with this approach?

2. Compare this novel about love to McCall Smith’s previous novel centering on the importance of love in our lives, Trains and Lovers. Further, how do the characters of Mma Ramotswe (from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) or Isabel Dalhousie (from the Isabel Dalhousie series) view love?

3. “Expatriates led their detached, privileged lives, knowing that their hosts merely tolerated them, never loved them or accepted them,” says the narrator (p. 23). And George Collins asks: “After all, what colour are the people living in the large houses and what color are the people who look after their gardens? What color are the maids? What does that tell us?” (pp. 39–40). Describe the tension between the hosts and the expats. What is the author saying about expatriate life through the course of the novel? Compare the relationship between the hosts and expats in Grand Cayman, Scotland, and Australia.

4. How would you answer Amanda’s question in talking about race relations in the Caymans: “How long do people have to say sorry?” (p.39).

5. Why does Amanda not tell her husband about her innocent drinks with George? Is she flirting with adultery without actually committing it? Or by withholding information and lying, is she committing adultery of a sort?

6. Discuss the effect upon you as a reader as you encounter the parallel lives of the parents, Amanda and George, and their children, Clover and James. How are the children’s lives similar to those of their parents and how are they different?

7. Why has Amanda fallen out of love with David? And why, in the beginning of the novel, does she stay with him even though she claims to have fallen out of love with him? Do her reasons for staying together change over the course of the novel? What are David’s reasons for remaining with his wife? What about George? Discuss the similarities/differences.

8. Do you agree with the simile George uses to describe falling in love with someone: “It’s like discovering the map that you’ve been looking for all your life and have never been able to find—the map that makes sense of the journey” (p. 166)?

9. Discuss John’s predicament. How is he misunderstood and judged? Why?

10. What are the ethical dilemmas with which the adults in this novel are confronted? Do you agree or disagree with how the various characters deal with the issues of betrayal?

11. Clover grows up feeling like an outsider, like the Caribbean is her temporary home and real life will start when she leaves. Her father’s country, Scotland, with its hills and soft colors (contrasting with the bright colors of the Caymans) “was a world that she had been brought up to believe was where she belonged” (p. 86). Have you ever felt the place where you live or once lived does not match with your personality?

12. When you visit a city, do you think about the architecture and what that architecture says about the place? Clover reflects on Scotland upon arrival: “The overall impression was one of nineteenth-century confidence and solidity” (p. 192). How do you think the architecture of Scotland differs from that of the Cayman Islands, and then later, as we follow Clover, from that of Australia and Singapore?

13. What is the importance of art, especially David Hockney’s art, and colors in this novel? And what about the art of storytelling?

14. What do you think of the advice that Clover receives from her mother to marry “somebody who’s kind” (p. 91)? What would be the characteristic you would advise someone to look for in a potential spouse? Can you imagine what the advice would be coming from any other Alexander McCall Smith characters?

15. Do you agree with Amanda’s comment that Clover is “in love with an idea of a boy, rather than with an actual boy” (p.158)? Why do you think Clover is so taken with James?

16. Amanda on Margaret: “Do you think people actually want their lives? Or do you think they just accept them?” (p. 12). Discuss how what Amanda says may reflect the way she feels about her own life. How do you think the author answer this question? How would you?

17. Do you agree with Clover’s comments on our personas? “Most of us have a persona we project to the outside world—it’s the part of us they see. And then there’s the bit behind that, which is the bit that remains with us when we turn the lights out” (p. 267).

18. “Could you make do with kindness rather than love? What if you were to lead a life in which you were never given the love that you craved, but found friendship and the kindness and consideration that went with that?” (p. 276). Discuss how the novel’s main characters—from Amanda to James to John—would answer those questions. How would you respond if Clover were speaking with you?

19. Do you agree with the statement that “we all want love, friendship, happiness to last forever, to be as it was before” (p. 93)? How does this assertion relate to the novel? What is The Forever Girl saying about love and the persistence of love?

Suggested Readings

If you enjoyed The Forever Girl, please explore Alexander McCall Smith’s other work, including the best-selling the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series or his other stand-alone works, including Trains and Lovers. A complete listing of his titles can be found on his website: www.alexandermccallsmith.com. He is also a faithful Facebook friend (facebook.com/alexandermccallsmith) and can often be found on Twitter (twitter.com/mccallsmith).
Alexander McCall Smith

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Alexander McCall Smith - The Forever Girl

Photo © Michael Lionstar

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