- - Thursday, July 23, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE NOVEL HABITS OF HAPPINESS

By Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon, 24.95, 272 pages

Isabel Dalhousie philosophizes the way some people drink. There is nothing that she won’t contemplate, analyze or nitpick, from meerkats in the zoo to the difference between a good submarine (the crew doesn’t swear or drink) and a bad submarine which of course must be nuclear.

When she finds herself investigating the odd case of a small boy who insists he recalls his reincarnation and the possibility of his returning to another life, Isabel “felt a touch melancholic. She thought it was something to do with the pointlessness of what she was proposing to do . It was a task of iconoclasm and she took no pleasure in it.”

But the intrepid detective never finds anything in which she is involved merely ridiculous, and it says everything about the charm of Alexander McCall Smith that he can get away with not only writing about thunderous bores like his Scottish philosopher but can get people to read about her boundless self-exploration. Especially since what is missing in her character is a sense of humor. A sense of the ridiculous would be a godsend for Isabel but there is no glimpse of it. What is interesting is that she is married to a very good-looking musician called Jamie and can’t believe her luck, and possibly neither can readers. He doesn’t take life nearly as contemplatively as his wife does and may be capable of instilling the capacity for laughter into their four-year-old son Charlie, whom Isabel addresses constantly as “my darling.”

In between editing an ethics journal and analyzing authors who aren’t quite up to her standards, Isabel is dutiful about responsibility to relatives, including those she doesn’t really approve of. Like her niece Cat, who runs a delicatessen and cafe where Isabel helps out. The relationship between Cat and Isabel is complicated by the fact that Cat had a relationship with the dishy Jamie before her aunt did and isn’t too happy that Isabel got him. Cat gives the impression that Isabel gets on her nerves despite her helpfulness and that is the kind of reaction that her aunt cannot understand. But she can indulge in philosophizing about it at great length. It probably should be kept in mind that the author, who is as prolific as he is talented, very likely philosophizes in much the way his character does, except he is probably much more entertaining about it. Otherwise, people would not go on buying his books.

Mr. McCall Smith achieved his first literary attention with his books about the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana, run by a lady known as Precious who philosophizes almost as much as Isabel Dalhousie but manages to be endearing about her kindly ruminations. Isabel leans toward being overwhelming since there is no topic, however minor, that she will not plunge into and stir. And it is hopeful that Isabel’s self-content may be rocked by Mick, the latest young man to be involved with her niece Cat. Mick looks a great deal like Jamie and even sounds like him, which leads readers to hope that Isabel’s satisfaction with the world as she wants it may be dented.

She reflects on a newspaper article suggesting that most women had a backup lover on whom they could rely to console them if their current relationship should fail. If the researchers had asked Cat, thinks Isabel, they would have found she had three or four men in reserve. Which of course brings up the thought of Cat now being charmed by Nick. If the researchers had asked her, Isabel continues to think, they would have discovered a complete lack of planning “because I would never need it.” But even as she thought that, she reminded herself she might be wrong. But she dismisses this as “a morbid line of thought and not one she cared to pursue” and looks with satisfaction on handsome Jamie, who is singing to her.

The next saga of Isabel Dalhousie most likely shall range farther into her thinking because she is considering having another baby and would prefer a girl. What she would be capable of in training a girl to be another Isabel is worthy of consideration. As well as sympathy for her daughter.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.


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