The wildly prolific McCall Smith adds yet another series hero, Paul Stuart, to a list that includes Botswanan Precious Ramotswe, of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency; philosopher Isabel Dalhousie, of Edinburgh, who solves friends’ problems in the series bearing her name; and Inspector Varg, of Sweden ... A hugely entertaining novel about a man who keeps getting into scrapes yet somehow finds his own way out of them.
... a colourful cast, and while on the surface the narrative appears to be driven by frivolous fallings-out and trivial goings-on, in true McCall Smith style, there are deeper questions revealed in conversations between characters ... These philosophical musings on important questions, coupled with deft wit, set McCall Smith apart from other popular authors. That said, this isn’t one of his finest books. With his rate of output there are bound to be some that you prefer, and I couldn’t warm to these characters in the way that I have, instantly, to Mma Ramotswe, Isabel Dalhousie or Detective Varg. The descriptions of provincial French life and particularly French food – once the restaurant has improved – are delicious. But the story feels flimsy and the author’s ability to nail the characters with just a few flourishes seems strangely lacking. Fortunately, McCall Smith on an off day still compares very well to the average.
Sadly, we don’t get to the heart of the matter until almost halfway through. Before then we have to endure the tedious company of protagonist Chloe, the overweening, five-times-married cousin of mild-mannered Paul, the food writer of McCall Smith's My Italian Bulldozer novel ... [Chloe's] pronouncements on matters ranging from monarchy to Catholic nuns and saints set a rather uncomfortable tone – not helped by some seriously clunky dialogue ... The problems here are so screamingly obvious and so easily fixable as to be laughable, and render the novel’s fundamental premise more flimsy than an under-baked meringue. More worrying, perhaps, is the unpleasant whiff of jingoistic imperialism in the idea that it takes the Brits to show the French how to do it ... It’s a pity that we only encounter some serious gastronomy towards the end, when Paul goes to an olive oil tasting with the new young chef. I’d like to have read more of this. In true McCall Smith form, everything turns out for the best in the best of all possible worlds ... The author’s legion of fans may devour this latest offering without question. I wonder, however, if some will find it too formulaic. In short, The Second Worst Restaurant in France needs more than a pinch of salt to rescue it.