(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With the title itself, Alexander McCall Smith's novel The Full Cupboard of Life suggests the optimism and open-heartedness that have guided its leading character, Mma Precious Ramotswe, through five books and many adventures. The novel is set in Botswana, a stable but poor country in Central Africa, where the characters drink bush tea and eat pumpkin (with a little butter if they can afford it), maintain their wealth in cattle, and appreciate a woman of traditional build. For readers in the industrialized world, the wonder of Mma Ramotswe is in how relatively little her cupboard contains and how fully it satisfies her needs.

In her profession as chief detective of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, Mma Ramotswe untangles mysteries for her clients, using intuition, observation, and quiet contemplation of human nature rather than forensic science or physical force. There are no fingerprints or shots in the dark, no suspense or blood. Mma Ramotswe relies on The Principles of Private Detection, a manual by Clovis Anderson, who encourages aspiring detectives to listen carefully to their clients and to trust their hunches. She also admires the mystery novels of Agatha Christie and often wonders whether Mma Christie would approve of her approaches. (Mma Ramotswe would be delighted and humbled to learn that several reviewers have compared her to Christie's Miss Marple.)

As The Full Cupboard of Life opens, Mma Ramotswe has completed a job, using her understanding of human nature to discover who embezzled from a store—not her favorite type of case “because it involved recrimination and shame.” The new case at the center of the novel involves a wealthy woman, Mma Holonga, who has made a fortune with a chain of hairdressing salons and a product called Special Girl Hair Braiding Preparation. Mma Holonga is pleasant, smart, and unassuming, but she has devoted so much time to building up her business that at the age of forty she has not yet made time to find a husband and have children. Now she has advertised for a man, has whittled down her list to four finalists, and would like Mma Ramotswe to help her select one who loves her for herself and not just for her money.

Coincidentally, marriage has been much on Mma Ramotswe's mind. She and Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni have been engaged for many months, but there is no sign of a wedding. She has pressed for a date to be set, but her intended has only answered vaguely that of course there will be a wedding, next year or the year after that. It is not a matter of either of them thinking that a wrong choice has been made; their mutual respect and devotion is unquestionable. Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, for reasons he does not understand himself, just cannot seem to take that final step. Mma Ramotswe is philosophical about her situation, as she is about all things, reminding herself, “You often heard of difficult husbands, but how often did you hear of difficult fiancés?” She would like to be married, but she knows that men have to be handled delicately. “We all know that it is women who take the decisions,” she tells Mma Makutsi, “but we have to let men think that the decisions are theirs. It is an act of kindness on the part of women.”

Mma Potokwane, who runs the orphan farm just outside Gaborone, takes a more direct approach to getting men to do her bidding. She is an old friend of Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, and for years he has been helping her keep her pump operating and her cars running and doing other repairs and errands as she needs them. Her method is simple: She bakes a cake, serves him a slice, and asks for a favor. Although Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni knows each time what is about to happen, and although he recognizes that the more raisins in the cake, the bigger the favor will be, he is unable to refuse her, even when, in this novel, she asks him to parachute out of an airplane to help the orphan farm raise money. Fortunately for the men in Mma Potokwane's sphere, she uses her manipulative powers only for the good of the orphans, never to get anything for herself or to gain power over anyone. If there was ever any doubt, her final act of manipulation in The Full Cupboard...

(The entire section is 1709 words.)