The Novel Habits of Happiness – Alexander McCall Smith

Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher. She lives in Edinburgh, she’s wealthy (she bought the applied ethics journal she edits when it was under attack from rivals), married to Jamie & the mother of three year old Charlie. All these advantages worry Isabel, even though she is philanthropic, kind & always ready to help anyone in need, especially when their problem has a moral or ethical dimension. Isabel’s relationship with her niece, Cat, is another source of worry. Cat is not much younger than Isabel & was once involved with Jamie. This hasn’t helped their relationship & Cat, who is a prickly woman, takes offence very easily while also presuming on Isabel’s good nature when she needs help. Cat also had terrible taste in men & has just gone off to Paris for a weekend with the latest man, leaving Isabel to help out in her delicatessen at short notice. Isabel’s social prejudices are on show when Eddie tells her that Cat’s new boyfriend is a dishwasher repairman & is then surprised by his knowledge of art & poetry. She also has to adjust her ideas about a colleague, Professor Robert Lettuce, who has made her professional life very difficult. She discovers that Lettuce is in line for a senior post at the Enlightenment Institute at the University of Edinburgh which disconcerts her. However, after meeting Lettuce’s wife, Clementine, & finding out a little more about the man & his motivations, she has to reassess her instinctive dislike of a man she has considered a personal enemy.

When a friend of Isabel’s asks her help for a neighbour, Isabel agrees to meet the woman, Kirsten, who’s concerned about her son. Seven year old Harry has begun talking about another life, his “other family”, & his mother is worried about his mental stability. Kirsten has recently separated from her husband so is Harry’s preoccupation with another family just a reaction to the separation or is it really evidence of reincarnation? Isabel agrees to look into it even though she’s profoundly sceptical about reincarnation. Harry’s memories of the house he lived in are very specific & Isabel decides that a possible location is near a lighthouse on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. What Isabel discovers when she visits the house seems to put Harry’s memories down to chance but that isn’t the end of the story.

It’s taken me a while to get around to reading this latest instalment in the Isabel Dalhousie series. I seem to be reading fewer & fewer modern novels & I’ve stopped reading several authors for whose new books I was always first in the reservation queue. Although I borrowed this when it was published last year, I took it back unread. A couple of weeks ago, I suddenly decided the time was right & then sat down & read it in one sitting. I like Isabel, the Edinburgh setting, her musings about Scottish art (she visits Guy Peploe’s gallery this time & looks at an exhibition of Colourists), the visits of Brother Fox &, this time, the visit to the west coast of Scotland. I’m afraid Isabel’s endless worrying & musing drives me a little crazy & I can’t help wondering that if she had less money & had more to do, she wouldn’t have time to endlessly debate the ethics of her own & everyone else’s motives. But then, she is a philosopher & that’s what she’s like – there, I’m dithering just as much as Isabel! I also find Jamie a bit of a cipher – handsome, kind, endlessly supportive, great cook – but Isabel seems a little less inclined to question their relationship in this book.

I was also interested in the reincarnation theme. I’ve always been fascinated by reincarnation. As well as reading lots of time-slip novels over the years, I’ve also read quite a few more serious books on the subject, including the ones by Ian Stevenson that Isabel mentions. It’s one of those subjects, like the existence of ghosts, that can never really be proved one way or the other although there are certainly some very convincing stories about both phenomena. As a rational person with a leaning towards scientific explanations of the world, Isabel finds reincarnation hard to believe but she’s open minded enough to do some research as she pursues her investigation. The Novel Habits of Happiness was an enjoyable way to spend a cool summer afternoon & with the enticing hook of a new plot development at the end of the novel, I’ll look forward to the next book in the series.

6 thoughts on “The Novel Habits of Happiness – Alexander McCall Smith

  1. AMS is one of those writers I wish I liked (I mean his books, not him; he is delightful). His books always seem enticing, but despite several attempts, I've never managed to cotton to them. I've read 2 Dalhousie books, but the woman leaves me cold.

    Even so, this one sounds so intriguing, I just might have another go.

    Like

  2. I only like the Scottish books but I do enjoy this series. I've never been able to get into the Mma Ramotswe series at all. I do like Isabel even though she can be infuriating at times.

    Like

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