This is a new book by the prolific and wildly popular author of the “Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series set in Botswana, the “Isabel Dalhousie” and “44 Scotland Street” series set in Scotland, and the “Portuguese Irregular Verbs” series set in Europe.
This new book, not obviously the initiation of a new series, is largely set in the Cayman Islands, with brief sections in Edinburgh, Singapore, Australia, and elsewhere.
One interesting aspect of this book was being able to learn something about the Cayman Islands, a small set of islands in the western Caribbean between Cuba and Jamaica. Governmentally part of the United Kingdom by their own choice, the islands are best (and rather notoriously) known as a financial haven for wealthy citizens of other countries eager to hide their resources from their own countries’ taxing power. As we learn, most Caymanians are from somewhere else, and this mindset pervades the characters in this novel. The large white expatriate community lives quite well, with the help of a parallel service economy of Jamaicans, Hondurans, and other Caribbean folks of color. Having never met anyone from Cayman or read any books set there, I found the glimpse into this world an interesting visit.
The title character, Clover, grows from young child to young woman over the twenty years or so of the novel. Although her father is Scottish and mother American, the only home she knows is Cayman until she goes off to boarding school in Scotland in her early teens. Her unusual sense of “home” is an interesting and important theme in the story.
The major struggle of the book is Clover’s deep feelings for her childhood friend James, with whom she has a deep, loving, and respectful friendship.
However, she wants something more and believes that her deep sense of him as her lifetime soulmate is reciprocated only by his loving her as a sister. Although they see each other only very infrequently after they both leave Cayman for boarding school, even though both go to Scotland, Clover somehow cannot bring herself to declare her love for James and talk the situation out with him.
After several years (and for the reader, many chapters) of this, it honestly becomes rather tiresome.
One wants to shake Clover and shout “For heaven’s sake, tell him how you feel!” The book seems to uncritically accept the romantic myth that there is one special person out there for each of us.
One common thread of “The Forever Girl” and other McCall Smith characters is that they greatly overthink before responding or making decisions. Isabel Dalhousie, a philosopher by training, is especially strong in this mold, but so is Mma Ramotswe in the Botswana series.
Clover, however, carries overthinking to a whole new level, enough that may annoy even overthinking readers like myself.
A sort of subplot involves Clover’s mother, who feels trapped in a comfortable but passionless marriage. The different ways she and her husband deal with this are interesting, though always reflect major thinking (overthinking?) before taking any action. Although this is a pleasant contrast to the more common trend of fictional characters acting impulsively before thinking much at all, it may be overdone. There is also a twist in this parental plot that complicates the Clover-James relationship.
One positive feature, however, is the close relationship that Clover and her mother have. Most teens would profit well from such an insightful and caring parent.
Will Clover and James find true love as each other’s soulmate? Will she finally let go of this romantic fantasy and get on with her life, as everyone is telling her to do?
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say I found the resolution somewhat unsatisfying and less than thoroughly believable. There was finally some movement at the conclusion, but the book ends without any real development of how this ending will be worked out.