Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Isabel Dalhouse's Charming Quirks and Forgotten Affairs

Working with Random House is wonderful: they have so many great books that they send for review. I'm particularly fond of Alexander McCall Smith, as many of my readers know, and I was fortunate enough to have the last two Isabel Dalhousie books sent to me. I read them immediately upon receiving them, but have just realized I never reviewed the last one! So here is a double feature -- the last two books in the Isabel series considered as a pair...
Toronto: RandomHouse, 2010.
256 p.

In this installment, Isabel is asked by an acquaintance to look into the backgrounds of three candidates for the principalship of a school -- the school has received a letter which hints that one of the three candidates has something shameful in his past that will embarrass the school (but of course it doesn't specify which one). Isabel must search out the secrets of the three men, one of whom coincidentally turns out to be her niece Cat's new boyfriend.

At the same time, Jamie is suggesting to Isabel that it's time to get married, a thought that isn't greeted with as much rapture as might be expected. Isabel has to deal with her ambivalence about this possibility, balanced with her definite devotion to him and to baby Charlie.

As usual, there is a lot of pondering of the fine shadings of ethical response to the various situations Isabel encounters. She ties herself in knots about things, at times, that to others would appear fairly simple. But that's part of her charm: she's a deliberate, thoughtful, woman who experiences some guilt about her easy life (inherited wealth, secure life situation). And of course, the incidental characters in this story are full of interest as well -- McCall Smith is able to communicate his fascination with everyone's stories, and make the slightest person seem intriguing. There are some moments that catch at your heart in this book, and make you wish for life to go a little more easily for certain characters.

The Forgotten Affairs of Youth
Toronto: Random House, 2011.
261 p.

In this book, just released in Canada today, Isabel is investigating the parenthood of an Australian philosopher she has just met. This philosopher, Jane Cooper, is studying in Edinburgh, and looking for traces of her past: she was adopted out as a child and her adoptive family moved to Australia shortly after. Isabel, of course, can't resist, and starts digging into the past. It's an interesting dilemma. Who are we without a sense of our family? What role does genetics play in self-identity?

The only slightly false note for me here is Jane's explanation that her adoptive parents are divorced and both have new partners and thus their relationship with her has drifted into something resembling casual acquaintance. Really? They've parented her since birth and are so easily distracted by a new partner that they don't consider her their child anymore? I wasn't totally convinced by it.

Meanwhile, niece Cat hires a replacement for regular staff member Eddie at her deli, and the new fellow -- a part-time model -- is a horrid creature. But he's awfully handsome, and Isabel worries about Cat's propensity for outer beauty over inner worth.

Charlie is beginning to speak -- at least to say more than "olive" -- and Grace continues to be an important member of the family, even sharing investment tips she's received from beyond the grave at her latest spiritualist meeting. But are they reliable?

The book closes on a happy note as Isabel and Jamie finally decide the time is right to formalize their relationship and with only Grace as attendant, legally wed. This scene in the church, with witnesses pulled in from the churchyard, is delightful. Once again, an enjoyable visit with Isabel and her peculiarly individual thought patterns..... these books are very quotable and very thought-provoking, though some of the characters (ie: Cat!) are so annoying! So great to be able to read another episode in Isabel's story, and the only problem now is waiting for the next one ;)


  1. I have tried Alexander McCall Smith before and just not enjoyed them. I will have to try again one of these days...

  2. Hmmm. I am further behind in this series than I realised! Need to catch up!

  3. Kailana - he has a number of different series; you might like one better than another. Or not...just read what you enjoy :)

    Marg - he writes so quickly that there are always new books available! and the publishing issues between UK, Canadian and US releases can get confusing. I think I'm up to date on this series, anyhow!


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