Saturday, April 11, 2015

Absence Makes the Heart Go Wander

If you haven’t done it already, read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith. It won’t take you long. You’ll either love its relaxed African warmth or be bored by it; you won’t hate it. And if you love it, you have a nice, longish series of sequels to enjoy. I loved it, so I’ve been rambling through the sequels over the years.

Naturally, I tried McCall Smith’s next series, too: the Isabel Dalhousie books, starting with The Sunday Philosophy Club. Many familiar features carried over from the Mma Ramotswe books: interesting characters with good hearts and pain in their backstories, lackadaisical plots, a crime that won’t be solved in the typical detective-novel fashion, and a main character who wrestles more with the mystery of life than with the mystery of murder. But one difference stood out: where Mma Ramotswe is a Christian woman wandering through the post-pagan world of Botswana, Isabel Dalhousie is an agnostic wandering through the post-Christian world of Edinburgh. The Sunday Philosophy Club never meets in the book; its members don’t even show up in the pages. The club seems to me clearly a metaphor for the virtually absent Church that has lost its voice, relevancy, and direct influence on the culture. But its history and indirect influence lurk behind every corner of the plot, and that setting kept me fascinated through the whole book.

The sequel, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, was enjoyable, but the Club wasn’t even mentioned (I think I remember that right), and the latent Christianity of contemporary Scotland remained almost completely hidden. So I ended up ambivalently liking it (although it did have that one marvelous moment I blogged about in 2012.) But I recently read The Right Attitude to Rain, the third in the series, and there once again was the vestigial layer of faith that I enjoyed so much from the first book. Isabel doesn’t believe but confesses that faith would be a great comfort and guide. So I’m hooked again. Looking up that old post, I see now that I waited at least three years between installment 2 and installment 3 of the series. So I need to pick up the pace and read The Careful Use of Compliments soon. Who knows? Maybe the Philosophy Club will decide to meet one of these days.

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