Sunday, March 14, 2010

Alexander McCall Smith - Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

Book time again. Another of my Christmas gift card purchases.

Alexander McCall Smith is probably best know for his The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series which has been turned into a series on HBO, but he's written quite a lot more, inlcuding two other ongoing series. Friends, Lovers, Chocolate is the second in his Isabel Dalhousie series. These are loosely characterized as detective works but are so far outside the genre's usual narrative crutches that it really has little relation to the genre. Literature would be a better classification.

The Macguffin for the story is that Isabel Dalhousie, Scottish/American woman residing in Edinburgh and occupying herself as an editor of a philosophical journal (as she's independently wealthy and not in need of work), meets a man who has recently had a heart transplant. He believes he's seen things that the deceased donor saw and that there was something untoward about his demise. Using decent reasoning, but making a few missteps because of the common name of the donor, she eventually susses out that the heart recipient actually overheard some conversations while he was recouperating in the countryside near where the donor's family lived. No big deal there.

What it's really about is the relationships Isabel has and various philosophical conundrums she encounters. She's about 40 and single but has a neice who's in her 20's and owns a delicatessen near where Isabel lives. Cat, the neice, has an ex-boyfriend named Jamie who teaches music in private lessons. Though often encouraging Cat to get back together with Jamie, it's clear Cat will not, and clearer still that Isabel loves Jamie. Complicating matters further, Cat goes on a trip to Italy, leaving Isabel in charge of the delicatessen for the week or so, and when she returns an older Italian noble soon follows. Cat wants to play matchmaker between him and Isabel, but he's really interested in Cat.

None of which sounds all that interesting in my description, but really is a challenging and engaging read. Isabel considers imperialism and theft and societal guilt. She considers whether we would be kinder if we treated everyone as we treat those with only a few days to live. She concludes practical matters of running a delicatessen, like cutting cheese and measuring out sun dried tomatoes, take precedence over questions of the heart (in the literal sense because of the transplant in question) and what they meant.

My favorite moment, though, is when the heart recipient talks about how he can still drink wine but can't have chocolate. Isabel's response is "Chocolate involves major philosophical problems. It shows us a lot about temptation and self control."

I don't know what it is about Smith, but he writes great female characters. They're fully realized. Neither perfect embodiments of feminine independence nor mere characterizations of female sexuality or male dependence. Mma Ramotswe of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is equally well rounded, though more literally than Isabel.

This series really challenges my vocabulary, too. Below is a list of the words and phrases I didn't know, marginally knew, or thought I knew but wasn't sure about.

kirk - Presbyterian Church of Scotland

eleemosynary - regarding charity

Lladro - porcelain figures

en brosse - short haircut resembling brush bristles

motet - music in several parts with voices

clematis - a type of flower

amanuensis - one employed to write for dictation or to copy manuscript

insalubrious - unwholesome

doss-houses - British slang for cheap housing

latifundia - large farms formed from buying smaller farms and uniting them

howff - house, enclosure

makars - poets, bards

at sixes and sevens - confusion, disarray

Occam's razor - a principle of simplicity that says, when otherwise equal the simpler of competing theories should be accepted

douce - sweet, pleasant

solecism - speaking incorrectly

Solecism is certainly not something Smith presents, unless he wants a character to so speak. It's worlds apart from the simple lyricism of Frank McCourt, but is its own motet, really. With a little more effort, I could string together some more praise using words and phrases from the above. I'll leave it to you to construct a figurative latifundia, constructed of the many fine writings available from Alexander McCall Smith.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.