Paul Stuart, a renowned food writer, finds himself at loose ends after his longtime girlfriend leaves him for her personal trainer. To cheer him up, Paul’s editor, Gloria, encourages him to finish his latest cookbook on-site in Tuscany, hoping that a change of scenery (plus the occasional truffled pasta and glass of red wine) will offer a cure for both heartache and writer’s block. But upon Paul’s arrival, things don’t quite go as planned. A mishap with his rental-car reservation leaves him stranded, until a newfound friend leads him to an intriguing alternative: a bulldozer.
With little choice in the matter, Paul accepts the offer, and as he journeys (well, slowly trundles) into the idyllic hillside town of Montalcino, he discovers that the bulldozer may be the least of the surprises that await him. What follows is a delightful romp through the lush sights and flavors of the Tuscan countryside, as Paul encounters a rich cast of characters, including a young American woman who awakens in him something unexpected.
A feast for the senses and a poignant meditation on the complexity of human relationships, My Italian Bulldozer is a charming and intensely satisfying love story for anyone who has ever dreamed of a fresh start.
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 24, 1948
Place of Birth:Zimbabwe
Read an Excerpt
THERE IS NO CAR
Scotland fell away beneath him, a stretch of green pasture, of hills, of swirling mist. Suddenly they were bathed in sunlight; fields of cloud, topped with crenellations of white, now lay beneath them as their plane pointed south. In his window seat he closed his eyes against the glare, imagining for a few moments their destination, as much an idea, a feeling, as a place. He saw a small tower that he had never seen before, a tower of warm red brick with a pattern of holes for doves. Down below, a man was pulling at a bell rope; as the bell rang, the doves launched themselves from their holes in the brick and fluttered skywards.
He opened his eyes and noticed that the passenger in the seat beside him, a man in perhaps his early fifties, dressed in a lightweight linen suit, was looking at him. The man smiled at him, and he returned the smile.
“What takes you to Pisa?” the man asked. His accent revealed him as Italian.
Paul hesitated, unsure as to whether he wanted to strike up a conversation that went beyond the niceties. He had brought with him a book that was just beginning to engage him, and he was looking forward to getting back to it. But the man smiled at him again, and his natural politeness decided the matter.
“So parlare Italiano,” he began. “Sono . . .”
The man did not allow him to finish. “Ah!” he said, and then, continuing in Italian, “What a pleasure it is for us Italians to discover somebody who speaks our language.”
“I’m sure there are many. Such a beautiful language . . .”
“Yes, but what use is a beautiful language spoken just by oneself? It’s all very well for the Spaniards, because there are so many Spanish speakers—all over the world. Even Portuguese has Brazil, but we have just us—just Italy—and after a while we get fed up with speaking only to ourselves. We have heard everything there is to say in Italian.”
“Surely not . . .”
“I am not entirely serious. A bit serious, perhaps, but not entirely.” Turning in his seat, he extended a hand towards Paul. “But I must introduce myself. I am Rossi—Silvio Rossi.”
“I’m Paul Stuart.”
Silvio loosened his tie. “Stuart is the name of Scottish kings, is it not? Mary Stuart . . .” He made a chopping gesture across his throat. “She was most unfortunate. Queens cannot choose their neighbours, and if they find they have one who has an axe, then it is most regrettable.” He sighed, as if the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, had been a recent outrage.
“It was a long time ago,” Paul said.
Silvio raised an eyebrow. “But I am an historian,” he said. “What happened in the past remains rather vivid for me and . . .” He paused, and now removed the tie altogether. “That’s better. Yes I find that the past has a much bigger shadow than people believe. It’s still with us in so many ways. At our side all the time, whispering into our ear.”
“Warning us not to repeat our mistakes?”
Silvio smiled. “We repeat some. Others we’re sensible enough to avoid making more than once. But that’s not what I was thinking about. What I was thinking about was the way in which the past determines our character, not just as individuals, but as nations. A child who is treated badly grows up damaged. A people who are subjected to bad treatment will bear resentments, will be suspicious. They will be bad allies.”
Paul, who had been holding his book, slipped it into the seat pocket in front of him. He had endured worse conversations on flights, including an attempt at religious conversion, a confession of adultery, and detailed advice on the attractions of Panama as a tax shelter. “You’re thinking of?”
Silvio waved a hand airily. “Oh, there are many examples. Russia, for one. Russia is a peasant country. It has a past of serfdom that ended only in the nineteenth century. That made for a vast, stubborn, ignorant population—one that was also very resentful. And they are resentful today—particularly of the West.”
“They view the West in the same light as they viewed their feudal masters. Authority.” He paused. “So western politicians who lecture Russians about human rights or their tendency to invade their neighbours will never change them. Not one bit. You’re dealing with a particular sort of bear, you see. One with a history. An abused bear with a short temper.”
Paul savoured the metaphor. He was right. “And Italy?”
“Well, that’s an interesting case. With us, the important thing to remember is that we are very young. We have lots of history, of course, but Italy itself is a teenager. The Risorgimento was really just yesterday, you’ll know. It ended in 1871. That’s yesterday. And that means that, as a state, we are still very far from maturity. That’s why half the population doesn’t really believe that the Italian state exists—or, if it does, they feel that they owe it nothing. We’re very disloyal to Rome, you know. We look after ourselves—our family, our city—and we don’t like paying taxes to Rome.”
“Nobody likes taxes.”
“Some like them less than others. Take the Greeks. They have a particular aversion to taxes, and this is because they haven’t forgotten that they were once part of the Ottoman Empire and they saw no reason to pay taxes to the Ottomans.”
“So you’re saying that people don’t change?”
Silvio sighed. “They don’t. Or if they do, it takes a long time. A very long time.”
The plane gave a slight jolt as it encountered a pocket of turbulent air. Paul glanced out of the window, and then returned to the conversation. “May I ask you something?” he said. “Is this what you actually do?”
Silvio shook his head. “I’m an economic historian,” he replied. “That’s something quite different, but it doesn’t stop me having views on these more general matters.”
“Economic history,” muttered Paul.
“A sobering science. That’s why I’ve been in Scotland. I’ve been at a conference.” He paused. “You didn’t tell me why you’re going to Pisa.”
“To taste food and wine,” said Paul.
Silvio looked surprised. “So that’s what you do?”
“Yes. I write about it.”
“There is a great deal to be said about Italian food.”
“Yes, I’m discovering that.”
Paul reached for his book.
“I mustn’t keep you from your reading.”
Paul had not intended to be rude. “Forgive me. I was enjoying our conversation.”
“But you must read your book, and I have some papers to attend to.” Silvio reached into his pocket. “Let me give you my card. I’m at the University of Pisa. It has all the details there. If you need help while you’re in Italy, please get in touch with me. My door is always open.”
Paul thanked him and took the card. Professor Silvio Rossi, it appeared, was not only Professor of Economic History at the University of Pisa, but a member of the Italian Academy of Economic Science and a cavaliere of the Republic. He slipped the card into the pocket of his jacket and opened his book.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith. A feast for the senses and a poignant meditation on the complexity of human relationships, this novel of one man’s adventures in the Italian countryside is a charming and satisfying love story for anyone who has ever dreamed of a fresh start.
1. In an essay about the setting for My Italian Bulldozer, Alexander McCall Smith writes, “How do you start falling in love with a country? When you first see it? When you first hear its music, or sample its food or wine, or meet some beguiling person from the country in question? There are many routes to the heart, and all of these play a role.” He describes his relationship with Italy and how he finally decided to write about the country. Have you ever fallen in love with a country? Which country and why did you fall in love with it?
2. How is Italy not only the setting but also a character in this novel?
3. Compare and contrast this novel with any other novels you’ve read by McCall Smith. What does the author say about finding love and the importance of love in this novel?
4. What is unexpected in or surprising about this novel?
5. What do you think of the title of this novel? And the title of the chapters? How do they add a sense of whimsicalness to the novel?
6. Alexander McCall Smith, in interviews, often talks about the importance of the simple things in life. In this novel, Paul discusses how “at the heart of this Tuscan tradition of plain cooking lie beans in all their simplicity” (p. 89). And a chapter later, he contemplates life in the Tuscan countryside, “What would have counted were things far more elemental: the spring rain, the winter frost, fire, the failure of crops. That is what mattered.” Do you think the novel is a call to live simply? Do you think Paul and the author are romanticizing country living?
7. Later in the novel, Paul and Anna discuss how Montalcino is changing due to the success of the wine, and Anna says this is “such a pity.” Paul argues with “You can’t expect people to pick poverty because it’s picturesque” (p. 120). Whom you agree with in this argument and why?
8. Winemaker Tonio tells Paul that in Italy, “everyone is envious of everyone else” and Paul says in Scotland, the situation is called “tall poppy syndrome. If somebody does anything exceptional, then others will want to cut him down to size” (p. 95). Give some examples of this in your experience.
9. Describe Silvio, the historian on the airplane who helps Paul with his rental car predicament. How is he a good introduction to Italy?
10. Paul doesn’t really want to take the bulldozer, but he feels he has to as everyone is going to such extremes to help him and being so nice. Have you ever been in a similar situation, not with a bulldozer but where you’ve done or taken something you didn’t want? What would you have done in Paul’s place? In the end, how does the bulldozer, open Paul up to new experiences? “In Italy, we are always open to new experiences” (p. 56).
11. What is the importance of storytelling in this novel, especially among the Italian men at the café and Tonio? What is the importance of stories, individual stories and collective stories and histories?
12. Describe the friendship between Paul and Gloria. Does it evolve through time and the novel? Do you think they will be happy together in the future? How has Paul not really seen her until he goes away to Italy?
13. What does Becky represent? Why is she so fickle? Why do you think she and Paul were once together as a couple?
14. “Sometimes the things that are most important to you are right under your nose and you just don’t notice them. Then you realize how rich life is, and how precious” (p. 232). Discuss this passage and retell a story from your own experience.
15. Priest Stefano advises Paul: “Follow your heart…it’s the best compass there is” (p. 230). Does Paul take this advice? How?
16. Onesto praises Paul for moving the earth on Tonio’s vineyard, “Fortunately there are brave people who are prepared to take the risk, who do these things, often in such a way that nobody can see them. They say, "The world doesn’t have to be the way it is; we can change it” (p. 229). What do you think of what the men have Paul do on Tonio’s vineyard? It is illegal, but do you think in the end it was morally fair and important to do?
17. How is art important in this novel? Why do you think the author made Anna an art historian studying Caravaggio? How does Caravaggio’s art and life relate to the novel?
18. Describe Paul’s love triangle and how it all works itself out. What would you have done in Paul’s situation at the restaurant with Becky and Gloria? Do you think Paul handles himself well? Do you think Paul likes Anna?
19. Paul describes being in love as “It’s like waiting for something terribly important to happen; it’s like being on the edge of something; it’s like hearing loud chords of Bach resonating in some great cathedral; it’s like surfing a giant wave, being carried, barreled along by the roaring watery creative beneath one” (p. 205). Using your own similes, describe falling in love.
20. Describe how this novel is both a traditional romantic comedy and how it is not.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Enjoyed this book immensely, read it straight through. Smith has a way with characters, making them immediately likable, believable and relatable. Four stars only for predictable outcome, satisfying though it was.
I am a big fan of the author. I like the real goodness in his characters.
Sweet book. Easy to read. Refreshing and humorous. Characters are interesting and engaging. Truly delightful.
My Italian Bulldozer is the fourth stand-alone novel by popular British author, Alexander McCall Smith. After food writer Paul Stuart’s girlfriend of four years leaves him for her personal trainer, his editor, Gloria suggests he do some on-the-ground research into his next (somewhat overdue) book. Three weeks in Tuscany, in the small hill town of Montalcino should surely help him restart his life. But a mix-up at the airport’s car rental office initially lands him, alarmingly, in some trouble, but eventually sees him driving a bulldozer to his alpine albergo. So begins another delightful tale by the master of the gentle philosophical story. The plot has more than a few surprises; the characters are charming and quirky; their dialogue often carries pearls of wisdom. McCall Smith has his characters musing on a myriad of topics: the importance of really listening; how history shapes populations; biological determinism; futurism; love and heartbreak. Examples of this: “…misery was nothing to do with objective good fortune. Misery was like bad weather; it was just there, and no number of optimistic comments could make the weather better” and “Fictional deaths can make us cry real tears” (to which many readers can attest) and “If you know you do something well, then it doesn’t matter what others think”. “Love of what you do is unmistakeable in the care with which you do it, whether it is seen in the way in which an artist applies the final touch of paint to his canvas, a master carpenter sands the last touch of roughness from the surface of the wood, or a woman making pasta kneads the compliant dough, draws it out, coaxes it to the right consistency” “Italian hill towns are hill towns with conviction; in other places human habitation may cling to the skirts of a hill, may climb up the lower slopes while leaving the top untouched. Here the Tuscan landscape was dominated by villages and towns that had long ago chosen to occupy the most commanding available positions” “…the equivalent of the mementoes that in the past lovers kept, preserved and cherished – folded love letters, locks of hair, dried flowers pressed between the pages of an album, love token of every sort. There were no flowers any more, just the telegraphese of electronic mail, the faded leaves of the virtual world” Readers will find themselves smiling, chucking and grinning inanely throughout this book. while the ultimate ending may be no surprise, the path taken is a pleasant literary journey, which Paul sums up neatly: “Sometimes the things that are most important to you are right under your nose and you just don’t notice them. Then the scales fall from your eyes when you are away from home, in a small hill town in Tuscany, for example, where unusual and extraordinary things happen. And then you realise how rich life is, and how precious”. Wonderful, as always.
I never tire of the tales McCall Smith weaves. I even paused while reading this one to try to imagine how wonderful it would be to be a writer like he is. This wonderful story with its odd twists and turns and all the strange and unlikely, yet delightful scenarios is yet another teachable tale. Long may he reign as the very best writer alive today.
Alexander McCall Smith is a wonder. He manages to produce book after charming book with vivid characters and plots that make even ordinary events memorable. This is one of his most pleasant works with lots of local Italian color and loving sympathy for all his characters. He writes restaurant reviews in his "spare time" and his love of good food and wine are evident throughout the romantic entanglements.
A chapter of accidents, a passage of misunderstandings, a good-natured journey to the hearts of Italy, wine and man, and an enticing blend of atmosphere, humor, bemusement, amusement and romance, My Italian Bulldozer is highly recommended. As usual with Alexander McCall Smith’s books, there’s a fine cast of off-beat characters, a wealth of crazy situations—starting of course with the eponymous bulldozer, which begs the question (and will have you believing the answer), who rents bulldozers to tourists? Love, like fine wine, is many splendored, may be inconveniently labeled, and deserves a serious chance in this novel. There’s a pleasing feel that all necessary second chances will somehow appear, and an enjoyable pact between reader and author that the glorious countryside will be enjoyed, as will the food; disbelief will be most willingly suspended and rewarded during the process. Disclosure: I borrowed it from a friend and I love it!
Entertaining light read.
A fun book . Though to did momentum a couple of times. The ending felt a bit rushed