The Lost Art of Gratitude (Magill's Literary Annual 2010)
Alexander McCall Smith, a lawyer and teacher, became an internationally popular author with the publication of The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998), a mystery set in Botswana and featuring sleuth Mma Precious Ramotswe. His unusual heroine gained in readership with each of the nine subsequent novels in the series. In 2004, McCall Smith created another woman sleuth, Isabel Dalhousie, an ethical philosopher living in Edinburgh, Scotland. The previous titles featuring Dalhousie are The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004), Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (2005), The Right Attitude to Rain (2006), The Careful Use of Compliments (2007), and The Comforts of a Muddy Sunday (2008). McCall Smith is also a prolific author of children’s books.
Each Isabel Dalhousie novel assumes a reader’s knowledge of what has happened in the personal lives of the main characters in the prior books. At the same time, each new story is complete enough in itself, so a lack of background is not a problem. In The Lost Art of Gratitude, Isabel’s present familial, social, and professional lives are clear, while the writer makes occasional brief references to background details from the earlier works. The narrative moves along smoothly as a result. Dalhousie is in her forties, resides in Edinburgh, and is independently wealthy. She shares her spacious home with her partner Jamie and their eighteen-month old son Charley. She also owns and edits The Review of Applied Ethics. Despite her great wealth, Isabel lives simply, but she is generous to others in need.
In The Lost Art of Gratitude, Isabel’s relationship with Jamie, her twenty-something lover of several years, is stable. Shortly into the novel, he proposes marriage and she accepts, though they make no plans for their wedding. Jamie is an accomplished bassoonist who plays and records with orchestral groups and teaches private pupils. He has his own apartment, which he now uses primarily for teaching. Isabel and Jamie, with the assistance of her maid Grace, enjoy very much raising their son. Aside from Grace’s sometimes blunt interference in things, there is a loving harmony, wit, and humor among Isabel, Jaime, and Charley that provides a soothing background for the sleuthing difficulties in which Isabel invariably becomes involved.
What makes Isabel an original character is that in each area of her daily lifedomestic, professional, and socialshe ponders her actions and experience from the viewpoint of a moral philosopher. Just as her professional journal is concerned with applied ethics, so she is a practical philosopher, examining closely her own thoughts and behaviors in her day-to-day, indeed minute-by-minute, life. She also ponders the words and behaviors of others, while trying always to be in these instances nonjudgmental.
Thus, considering the investment-banking career of her recently regained acquaintance Minty Auchterlonie, Isabel thinks, “There was nothing essentially wrong with investment bankers, but they were usurers,” but then adds, “There was an ocean of difference between a usurer, properly so called, and a banker. Usurers exacted excessive interest, whereas bankers extractedmoderate interest.” The underlying humor in this kind judgment, caught only in the word “extracted,” enriches McCall Smith’s narrative. The text is never preachy, despite its heroine’s serious debates with herself and others. The characters are both very human and richly entertaining. Whether McCall Smith hopes that his heroine’s concern about right and wrongor, in this story, the presence and absence of a simple thank-youwill unobtrusively rub off on readers is a mystery.
Many of Isabel’s own decisions and actions are based in her strong belief that, when one can help someone, one should. Also, she wants to trust everyone. These beliefs and the actions that...
(The entire section is 1606 words.)
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