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.
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 story for anyone who has ever dreamed of a fresh start.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
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.
About this Author
ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH
is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels and a number of other series and stand-alone books. His works have been translated into more than forty languages and have been best sellers throughout the world. He lives in Scotland.
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