- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, $23.95, 256 pages

Perhaps only someone who can discourse on philosophy and cheese could have come up with a title like this. It conjures up a lunch picnic scene with a baby playing with a soft toy and his father digging in a garden in which sunshine is always threatened by rain. And it has to evoke in many minds the simple pleasures of a wet British weekend.

Mr. McCall Smith quite remarkably makes the leap from Isabel Dalhousie, a sophisticated Scottish philosopher whose personal problems seem to suggest a certain failure on her part to count her blessings.

Such as her obsession about the age difference between her and her very attractive lover, Jamie, a musician who seems to have more common sense than Isabel when it comes to appreciating what is at hand.

Isabel is attractive and wealthy and she and Jamie have a child, Charlie, yet she remains beset by doubts born of social tradition. She is temporarily diverted from her worries when she is called on to investigate the plight of a doctor whose career has been demolished by allegations that he was guilty of scientific fraud involving a new antibiotic. Even then, she is distracted by apparent mysteries regarding Jamie’s friends and his freewheeling lifestyle. Isabel constantly seems to find something to fret about in a potentially gloomy future.

“Why,” she wonders, “did we need loss and parting to remind us of how much friendship and indeed love, meant to us? Yet we did.”

It occurs to her that she had been perfectly self-assured in all areas of her life until the fateful night when she and Jamie had made the transition from friends to lovers. She acknowledges that by accepting Jamie into her life, she had given a “hostage to fortune,” because, she thinks darkly, he could become bored with her, leave her or suddenly find her ridiculous. “[N]one of which she thought would necessarily happen, but it could.” When she takes what she admits is a visceral dislike to a young man who is Jamie’s friend, Isabel considers whether she is indeed jealous and possessive, and the voice of her conscience whispers, “Oh yes. Very.”

“Conscience, ‘she thought,’ walks with us; an unobtrusive companion, unseen, perhaps, but still audible.”

Mr. McCall’s fragile plot is overwhelmed by such philosophical contemplation, yet leavened by delicious flashes of humor as when the brilliant Isabel befriends Eddie, an assistant in a cafe who admits that he thinks Aristotle is a kind of cheese that his employer had never ordered. Isabel remains understanding and even gives Eddie 500 pounds to get him out of an alleged personal problem. Having come to a satisfactory philosophical conclusion about the reasons for her gift, she is somewhat confused when Eddie returns most of the money.

Isabel’s capacity for viewing life from a distance is demonstrated by her relationship with her niece Cat, who is constantly struggling with romantic problems, yet is not intrigued by the world around her.

Cat related “only to those things that impinged upon her immediate life,” Isabel observed.

When Cat explains to Charlie the baby that what he is looking at are “bees, bees,” Isabel admonishes her.

“I already told him that. Charlie does not need people to repeat things to him.” It tells the reader a good deal about Isabel.

Ironically, yet predictably, it is the handsome and remarkably patient Jamie who repeatedly brings Isabel back to the pleasant reality of their life, in which they enjoy Charlie and each other. He reminds her that she had turned down his proposal of marriage, and adds, “You mustn’t doubt me.” Isabel wishes he would propose again, but the moment has passed, and all she can hope is that it will return.

Her effort to help the doctor in trouble is resolved by the cold reality of his belated admission that he had committed the offense of which he was accused. After that “they sat in silence. It was a silence that comes when the worst has been said and there is nothing more to be added.”

Isabel suggests that instead of carrying out his dramatic threat to kill himself and further ruin his wife’s life, the doctor should set himself a penance by “doing good for somebody else.”

She decides that it is to the doctor’s credit that although he had been indifferent to the rules of his own calling because of misplaced pride, he had nevertheless felt “crippling, overwhelming guilt,” which suggested he was not really a genuine psychopath.

At last, sitting in her garden on a Saturday with Jamie and Charlie, Isabel concludes that she is happy. She brushes mud off Jamie who has been working in the garden and he observes, “Mud and Saturdays go well together.”

It is a philosophical statement that is in tune with the book and the way the author thinks and writes. In his portrayal of the thinking of a highly intelligent and introspective woman, Mr. McCall Smith reveals much of his own personality and his own philosophy. As in his other books, he succeeds in infusing with gentleness situations that could call for harshness. And for that he is to be congratulated.

Muriel Dobbin is a former Baltimore Sun.

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