I’ve never been a huge fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series, but given the insights, humor and enchanting world he created in his Scotland Street series, I keep giving him a second chance in the hopes that he will draw me in and spark at least a tolerance, if not a liking, for the lady-philosopher-turned-detective-and-problem-solver. But in vain.
The most recent book I read, The Right Attitude To Rain, was my companion during long waits at the doctor’s office for bloodwork to be done, and proved significantly less interesting – and less psychologically astute – then just observing the assembled humanity about me.
In this, the third book of the series, Scottish middle-aged philosopher Isabel spends a lot of time with her houseguests – relatives from the wild land of Texas – and with some American friends of theirs who may or may not be trying to kill each other for inheritance reasons. She also spends some time with her younger friend (and her niece’s former boyfriend) Jamie. However, even that brief time is rich in consequences – as the result of a one-night stand with Jamie, she becomes pregnant, informs him of the fact, and the book ends.
In terms of a plot, it is perhaps not the most riveting of novels, but that is not why one reads McCall Smith’s writing. In terms of character development, and the comforting smooth readability one does expect from the author, it is also completely, and surprisingly, off the mark.
Isabel is a philosopher (albeit one who does not seem to engage in much philosophical debate with those of her ilk, other than replying to their letters in her capacity as editor of a philosophical review), so one has come to expect her way of thinking to be somewhat different than what we mere mortals are accustomed to. Somewhat less practical, say.
However her behavior in this novel is out of character even for her, particularly when it comes to her relationship with Jamie, the 14 years younger former paramour of her niece, the only family member with whom she has a relationship. From the beginning of the novel, she becomes more and more convinced (mostly because others point it out, but also because Jamie seeks more physical contact with her) that Jamie is lusting after her as much as she is after him. After having ascertained that he is indeed attracted to her, during an outdoors walk in the Scottish countryside she bluntly asks him if he will sleep with her, and (plot spoiler), he does. She wakes up happy, he – we don’t really know, but presumably he is at least not disgusted. Shortly upon returning from this trip, Isabel discovers she is pregnant and breaks the news to him with some trepidation. After shattering a wine glass in his initial shock, Jamie wholeheartedly embraces the idea of fatherhood (albeit no details of their arrangement or potential subsequent union or living together are discussed).
The problem isn’t even in the fact that Isabel slept with her niece’s ex (while not something I myself would contemplate, it was clear that that relationship had been long over), but rather her extremely nonchalant attitude toward love, lust, and pleasure. I used the word ‘lust’ even though the author prefers the daintier sounding ‘love’ – but I just don’t really see much love in what is between Jamie and Isabel. They are friends, yes, if being friends means holding long conversations about the finer points of moral code or other otherworldly topics while sharing an Italian-inspired meal either in a garden gazebo or an Edinburgh restaurant. It doesn’t seem that their friendship has been solidified in any more substantial way.
So here they are, a 42-year woman of independent means and a 28-year old handsome bassoonist, out on their first trip to the countryside together, and after serendipitously having connecting rooms in the grand country house they are staying at, Isabel propisitions Jamie and he accepts.
We know Isabel had been married before, and passionately in love with her poetic, philandering Irish husband. The novel also mentions other times of physical attraction or passion in her life. However, nothing prepares us for her throwing herself at Jamie with nary a thought about the actual significance of the act. Yes, she contemplates beforehand if it is possible for love to flourish between them, and the implications of her being older, but she wastes little time as to what physical contact actually means, in their case. She is suffused with the glow of “love” afterward, but it’s hard to see what inspires it other than physical satisfaction – Jamie isn’t very loving, and their ‘friendship’ will surely be complicated by this hookup (there is no other name for it). They seem to have drifted into an unnatural conclusion without considering or discussing their relationship, their commitment to each other, their feelings for each other, their potential fertility, or any of those topics which are fraught with difficulty but yet – upon resolution – can actually contribute meaning and thus beauty to something that otherwise is purely physical.
For someone who seeks meaning in the activities of a vagrant fox digging up plants in her backyard or muses on the ethical dimensions of pocketing a packet of coffee from a deli, this insouciance to the ethical, moral and practical repercussions of their act is really surprising.
It may be the Right Attitude to Rain, but it’s certainly the wrong attitude to life. And a decided detour from the level-headed moral philosophizing we had come to expect from Isabel.