Monday, October 18, 2010

THE CHARMING QUIRKS OF OTHERS by Alexander McCall Smith

If you're not already a McCall Smith fan, The Charming Quirks of Others - book 7 in the Isabel Dalhousie series - may not be the place to start. Most readers get hooked on the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series (now up to 11 titles) before moving on to the first book about Isabel, The Sunday Philosophy Club, though the Dalhousie series is also a fine introduction to the man who surely must be Scotland's most prolific writer.

But if, like me, you're a confirmed McCall Smith devotee, you know without my telling you that, with his newest book, you're in for another evening or two of reading that's as comforting as a mug of hot chocolate.

Isabel, the kindly, rich, slightly snoopy, and incessantly worrying Edinburgh ethicist, has several things to think about. Will she be able to purchase the Raeburn portrait of her ancestors? How will she, as editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, deal with a presumptuous author she strongly dislikes? Can she - should she - help a woman she barely knows find out who has written an anonymous letter, and why? Has her niece, Cat, finally found a decent boyfriend? Is her fiancé, Jamie, having an affair?

The interwoven stories are fun - McCall Smith is a very funny writer. And Isabel's constant musings are delightful and, sometimes, thought provoking - McCall Smith is also a professional philosopher. Listen to Isabel thinking about why we are interested in genealogy, for instance:
Blood links, she thought; that was what it was about. However tenuous such links were, people regarded them as standing between themselves and the void of human impermanence. For ultimately we were all insignificant tenants of this earth, temporary bearers of a genetic message that could so easily disappear. We had not always been here, and there was not reason to suppose that we always would be. And yet we found such thoughts uncomfortable, and did not like to think them. So we clung to the straws of identity; these, at least, made us feel a little more permanent.
I love McCall Smith's storytelling and philosophizing, but even more I love his kindness. His characters are often odd and bumbling, but they mean well. They care for one another. They believe in forgiveness. They know how to love.

Isabel and Jamie, for example, having picnicked on Scotch egg pie and cucumber sandwiches, are now lazily talking. "You're very kind," Isabel says.
"Because I love you so much," he said. "That is why I like to be kind to you."

"And that is why I shall bring you all the flowers of the mountain," said Isabel. "For the self-same reason."

She went on to say something else, but Jamie found his attention drifting. He was feeling sleepy, for it was warm, and he could lie there for ever, he thought, listening to the sound of Isabel's voice, in the way one listens to the conversations of birds, or the sound of a waterfall descending the side of a Scottish mountain; sounds for which we cannot come up with a meaning, but which we love dearly and with all our heart, and loving anything with all your heart always brings understanding, in time.

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To read my reviews of other McCall Smith books, click here and then click on the titles that interest you.

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