The Right Attitude to Rain
by Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, 288 pages, $21.95
Hard to believe that, only a handful of years ago, the name Alexander McCall Smith would have drawn a blank among American readers. An African-born academic in Scotland who specializes in medical law and frequently sits on bioethics panels, committees, commissions, and so forth, McCall Smith had published a number of books before he achieved improbable fame with a series of tales featuring Precious Ramotswe, founder of the only detective agency in Botswana, a serenely self-assured woman who solves crimes and dispenses wisdom with equal aplomb.
McCall Smith's most conspicuous quality is his enormous charm, not at all a given for a novelist any more than for a politician. Charm depends in part on confidence of a particular kind, an expansive confidence that boosts those who come into contact with it. Charm is typically antithetical to anxiety and intensity. A charming person seems to be saying, “You and I take the world as it is, and we do not despair.”
Many novelists give short shrift to the small good things of life. They seem to fear, above all else, the thought that they might be dismissed as sentimental and insufficiently tough-minded. (Hence perhaps the bilious contempt for McCall Smith expressed by his compatriot Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting and Porno.) McCall Smith's books are instead full of small pleasures, passing observations on this or that feature of modern life, unembarrassed moments spent contemplating a painting or a slant of light, all bespeaking a worldly confidence. Of course, there's a reason our warning system flashes when a literary character is introduced as charming. Precisely because charm is so inviting, so seductive, it can disable judgment. The devil is said to be charming in some of his guises.
Two years ago, with the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series purring nicely along and various other literary enterprises keeping his name before the public, McCall Smith found time and energy to inaugurate a new series, centering on Isabel Dalhousie, a character who, we are told, edits the Review of Applied Philosophy from her home in Edinburgh.
The new series, though compulsively readable in its own way, has suffered from a mild crisis of identity. How much this reflects an authorial course correction, how much a change in marketing strategy, remains unclear. The title of the first volume, The Sunday Philosophy Club, published in the United States in the fall of 2004, was initially the title of the series as well, and the front cover of the dust jacket described it as “An Isabel Dalhousie Mystery.” Its title seemed to be a joke of sorts; there are several passing references in the novel to a Sunday Philosophy Club that seems never to meet, in part because “Sunday's not an easy day.”
When the second installment, Friends, Lovers, and Chocolate, appeared a year later, it was billed as continuing the “Sunday Philosophy Club series,” but the “Mystery” label had disappeared. And with the third installment, The Right Attitude to Rain, published in the fall of 2006, the series had a new name: It was now the Isabel Dalhousie series.
All this tweaking may seem like much ado about nothing. Perhaps the author simply tired of his own shaggy joke. But it may suggest the challenge that McCall Smith has set for himself. Serious or comic, historical or contemporary, War and Peace or Lucky Jim, all novels deal with ethical questions—because novels are about human beings making choices that have consequences. But McCall Smith is writing a series in which ethical reflection is put in the foreground, becoming part of the action, so to speak. Perhaps even when such reflection comes with the imprimatur of a best-selling writer in as winsome a form as can be imagined, “philosophy” scares off too many readers.
In some respects, Isabel Dalhousie seems to be the polar opposite of Precious Ramotswe: discreetly wealthy (and very generous with her anonymous benefactions); a knowledgeable lover of music and painting and books (she is given to quoting poetry, especially lines from Auden); steeped in the lore of Scotland and intimately familiar with her beloved Edinburgh; university-trained in philosophy and editor of an academic journal—what does she have in common with her African counterpart?
A good deal, it turns out. Both are exceptionally observant and unusually curious about their fellow human beings. Both have a tendency to become involved in sorting out other people's problems. Both were unhappily married when young to men who were exciting and obviously—in retrospect—unsuitable. Both begin their series unattached and find a partner in time: After a long courtship, Ramotswe marries the splendidly dependable mechanic Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (always referred to by his full name); Isabel takes to her bed the handsome, gentle young bassoonist Jamie, twenty-eight to her forty-two, once enamored of—and rejected by—her niece Cat. And if Isabel is more inclined to self-questioning than Mma Ramotswe, more attuned to the skeptical spirit of modern philosophy than to the claims of tradition, both women are moralists first and foremost.
As with the protagonists, so too with the distinctive idioms in which the two series are conducted: Sharp contrasts give way to deeper continuities. The generalizing conventions of the folktale are never far away in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, while Isabel Dalhousie's comedies of manners bristle with specificity: streets and shops and galleries in Edinburgh, names of living painters and poets and philosophers (not a few of them, we may assume, to be numbered among McCall Smith's acquaintances), all imparting a richly civilized texture against which the comedy can play out. But the folktale and the comedy of manners are akin in their ruthlessly stylized exclusion of all that doesn't fit the template. In that self-limitation lies their strength.
There's something intrinsically funny about the activity of thought, of course. It's funny that creatures such as ourselves—forked radishes, cousins to the ant, the sparrow, and the orangutan—are yet capable of ratiocination, and in his philosophical tales McCall Smith deftly exploits the comic potential of that incongruity even as he argues for a certain vision of the examined life. While Isabel's philosophical interests are not limited to ethics, she's principally preoccupied—both as a journal editor and in her own musings—with ethical questions, the ethics of food, for example. (“There would have to be a paper on the moral issues raised by chocolate; the more she thought of it, the richer became the philosophical dimensions of chocolate.”)
And precisely because that vision is so charmingly conveyed, to acknowledge that it's empty at the core is painful. In The Right Attitude to Rain, Isabel finally lets Jamie know how she feels about him—and to her joy, he reciprocates. (The ground has been prepared in the previous book in the series, in which Jamie has a brief affair with an unhappily married woman close to Isabel's age.) At the same time, she learns that her own mother—her “sainted American mother,” who died of cancer when Isabel was eleven years old—had an affair with a much younger man, an affair that the man ended when he became aware of the mother's illness. The moral of the story is “whatever.” As Isabel's American cousin Mimi explains, “whatever” is “an expression that people use these days . . . which is actually quite useful.” So “just let this thing evolve naturally,” Mimi advises. “Stop thinking about it. Just for the moment remember that first you are a woman, then, second, you are a philosopher. Can you do that, do you think?”
Isabel can. Note the curious assumption that moral scruples are the business of the philosopher, not the woman. Even such scruples as Isabel has mustered before she takes Mimi's advice have to do with the question of whether the disparity in age between Jamie and herself would make a romantic relationship between them somehow wrong or perhaps simply absurd. She does not brood for even a little bit about what it means for a woman and a man to enter into such a bond without the lifelong commitment that marriage entails. If she regards such notions as used to surround marriage as no longer pertinent, we don't know why, since she never takes the question up.
We do have hints. Although Isabel reads widely in philosophy, and although she lives in a country where—however much territory secularization has claimed—there are still abundant vestiges of Christian belief, not to mention people who continue to practice that ancient faith, she seems almost never to think about such matters. This is a bit implausible, given her voracious curiosity, her habit for noticing. There are a few vague references to “traditional” ways of seeing the world, with the suggestion that they are now inaccessible to such as Isabel, don't you know. In The Right Attitude to Rain, there is a passing reference to Alasdair MacIntyre's notion of narrative and the unity of the self. (MacIntyre's name is misspelled, an error that would grieve Isabel, one feels.) And in Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, an encounter with a woman who strongly disbelieves in any afterlife prompts Isabel—who has an “open mind” on “all of this,” we're told—to think, uncharacteristically, about God: “We strove for God—or many people did—and did it really matter what form we gave to that concept of God? In her mind it was a striving for the good. And what was wrong with striving for good in a way which made sense to the individual?” Like, you know, whatever. From the admirable editor of the Review of Applied Philosophy, this is terribly thin gruel.
The Right Attitude to Rain ends with Isabel telling Jamie that she is pregnant. Occasionally in McCall Smith, one catches a whiff of another moralist, Iris Murdoch, and her sudden twists of plot and character, reminding us how often we are wrong about each other and wrong more generally in our suppositions, our inferences. True, and needful, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease—especially when we begin to suspect that the author is merely toying with her characters.
It will be interesting to see how the next installment of Isabel's story unfolds. An unexpected pregnancy has been the motor of tragedy in many a novel. Here it will be the stuff of comedy—but a comedy of ethics, shedding light, however obliquely, on decisions made outside the frame of art. Will Isabel and Jamie marry? Will she plan to raise the child herself? Will she (at forty-two years of age) undergo prenatal testing for genetic defects? Will she miscarry? And whatever happens, will any of the characters in whose hands this fictional life rests appeal to an authority beyond “striving for good in a way which [makes] sense to the individual”?
<span style="font-variant: small-caps">John Wilson</span> is the editor of Books & Culture.