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.

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds – Alexander McCall Smith

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds is the latest in the Isabel Dalhousie series. Isabel is a woman with everything – & she worries about whether she deserves her good fortune. She has inherited money, lives in a beautiful house in a lovely part of Edinburgh & she owns & edits a philosophical review. She’s married to Jamie & the mother of three year old Charlie. Isabel is known for helping people with their problems. She’s not a conventional detective, she’s really a philosophical or moral detective.

Isabel is a philosopher & she has a tendency to over-analyse any situation & reproach herself for any shortcomings in kindness or helpfulness. When she meets a friend, Martha Drummond, she describes her as a heart-sink friend. I think that’s the most wonderful description of someone whose appearance has just that effect. Our hearts sink as they’re sure to either put us on the spot or put us in the wrong. Martha has this effect on Isabel. No matter what they discuss, Martha manages to either take umbrage or cause offense. This time she wants Isabel to help a friend of hers. Duncan Munrowe is a wealthy man with a considerable estate & a magnificent art collection. One of his most prized paintings by Poussin has been stolen & the thieves have sent a ransom demand to Duncan’s insurers. Martha wants Isabel to help Duncan negotiate with the thieves.

Isabel agrees to meet Duncan & ultimately she agrees to accompany Duncan to a meeting with a lawyer representing the thieves & eventually a potentially dangerous meeting with the thieves themselves. She also meets Duncan’s two children & discovers that relationships within the family are complicated. The more she discovers about the Munrowes, the more tangled the puzzle of the stolen painting becomes.

Isabel is also dealing with her own family dilemmas. We don’t see her spiky niece, Cat, only hear about a particularly nasty bout of gastro that keeps her away from the deli she runs, leading Isabel to offer her help for a few days. Cat’s assistant, Eddie, has a new girlfriend & a worrying personal problem that Isabel tries to help him with. Isabel & Jamie are also wondering if Charlie is a mathematical prodigy. Isabel worries about whether they should encourage his genius or just let him be. She has a horror of being a pushy mother & also of ignoring Charlie’s potential. When it turns out that Grace, Isabel’s housekeeper, has been teaching Charlie maths, Isabel is relieved but then concerned that Grace should interfere in this way. Another moral dilemma that leads to a confrontation with the easily-offended Grace. Isabel does a lot of tiptoeing around people in this book!

I do enjoy this series. I don’t think Isabel would be an easy person to live with. Her constant questioning of every action & interaction with her conscience & other people would be very tiring. However, she has the luxury to be able to spend time thinking & questioning her motives & actions. Most people have to get on with life hoping for the best. Isabel is so aware of her blessings that she’s sometimes afraid to just enjoy them. I love her civilized life in Edinburgh with visits to Cat’s deli, conversations about art & music & her happy contentment with Jamie & Charlie. I enjoy Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh novels best & it’s always lovely to spend a few hours with Isabel & her moral dilemmas.

The Forgotten Affairs of Youth – Alexander McCall Smith

This is the latest Isabel Dalhousie novel from one of the world’s most prolific novelists. It’s only a couple of weeks since I read the latest 44 Scotland Street novel (I know these are serialised in The Scotsman so it’s been nearly a year in the writing) & there’s a new Professor Von Iglefeld novel out soon, Unusual Uses for Olive Oil. My favourite series are the Edinburgh series. I love the atmosphere of Edinburgh in these books. Isabel Dalhousie is a wealthy woman, a philosopher, living in Edinburgh with her fiancé, Jamie & their young son, Charlie. Isabel is the owner & editor of a journal, the Review of Applied Ethics, & her life as a philosopher influences every area of her life. Isabel is always aware of her good fortune. Her inherited wealth makes her slightly uncomfortable & she is very sensitive to the feelings of others.

In this latest novel, Isabel seems to have stopped questioning her good fortune in relation to Jamie & is just enjoying being in love. Jamie is younger than Isabel & was once the boyfriend of her niece, Cat. Although Jamie & Cat had broken up by the time he fell in love with Isabel, Cat has always resented their relationship & it hasn’t made their already spiky relationship any easier. The fact that Isabel goes down with mild food poisoning after eating mushrooms bought at Cat’s deli doesn’t help either – or the fact that Isabel can’t bring herself to lie to the food inspector when asked where she bought the mushrooms.

Isabel often finds herself involved in the problems of friends & acquaintances. She’s discreet & genuinely wants to help so she finds herself asked to investigate tricky problems. Jane Cooper is an Australian academic spending her sabbatical year in Edinburgh. She chose Edinburgh partly because she was born there & adopted as a baby. She’s about to turn 40 & wants to find out about her parents. Jane knows that her mother, Clara Scott, was a student who died in an accident about eight years after Jane’s birth, but she knows nothing about her father. Isabel agrees to help & starts making enquiries. Isabel soon discovers a possible candidate, Rory Cameron, who had been Clara’s boyfriend at the time. When she visits him, she discovers a disappointed man whose life had been one missed opportunity after another. He is thrilled to learn that he has a daughter & Isabel arranges for Jane & Rory to meet. But, it’s not as simple a story as Isabel first thought & when she begins to have doubts, she has to decide how much to tell Jane about what she discovers.

Along the way I always enjoy being part of Isabel’s privileged, well-ordered life. Her housekeeper, Grace, is a touchy but warm-hearted woman who goes to spiritualist meetings. When one of the spirits recommends investing in West of Scotland Turbines, Isabel is intrigued enough to ask advice. What is she to think when she invests & the shares go up? Is Grace right to have such faith in mediums & their messages? Then, there’s Isabel’s ongoing tussle with Professor Lettuce over control of the Review. Isabel’s coup in buying the journal is still resented by Lettuce who sends her a paper written by his nephew, Mark, & virtually dares her to reject it. When Isabel meets Mark to discuss the article, she learns a lot about Professor Lettuce – some of it surprising. The readers who commented on my post about the last Isabel novel, The Charming Quirks of Others, will be pleased to know that I looked for mentions of Charlie’s Macpherson tartan rompers & couldn’t find any. Of course, it could be that he’s too old for rompers now that he’s started playgroup, but the only reference to Macpherson tartan was the kilt Charlie wears on a very special occasion. I always look forward to a few hours spent in Isabel’s company.