Reading an Alexander McCall Smith novel, from any of his many series, is both a delicious pleasure as well as a masterclass in elegant prose.
His stories unfold slowly, at a natural pace, with ample time for his characters (and readers) to allow their thoughts to wander, to think about the coincidences of life, to reflect on puzzling incidents, to think funny irreverent thoughts…
Oh, yes. Back to the review.
This wandering of thoughts is contagious.
“The Forgotten Affairs of Youth” is the eighth in the Isabel Dalhousie series, and we pick up (with great delight) the calm life of Isabel Dalhousie, a professional philosopher; Jamie her younger, good looking partner, who is a kind, gentle man, a musician, and father to their boisterous toddler Charlie, who issues imperious commands to his loving parents – “Olive!” is his favourite word throughout this book.
We meet up again with Grace, the opinionated, séance-loving housekeeper, and so the threads of life in this Edinburgh society weave another delightful story.
As ever, Isabel gets involved in the lives of others, always trying to help, always curious about their problems, and so it should come as no surprise to the reader that Isabel takes up the search for her new friend Jane’s birth parents with great gusto and commitment.
As Isabel and Jane try and track down her parents, and Grace communicates in her weekly séances with those have passed over, who are sometimes not averse to giving stock-market tips, we watch the ripples of these lives reach out and affect other people.
Isabel Dalhousie remains the calm, intelligent heart of these tales, as much in love with Jamie and the charming little Charlie, as she is with Edinburgh, for which she (and Mr. McCall Smith) clearly share a great affection.
As befits any self-respecting philosopher, Isabel likes to reflect upon things that may seem quite mundane to the rest of us, but such is the author’s skill and obvious delight in Isabel’s musings, that we happily wander off with her, and indeed the sedate pace with which she lives her life is restful to the reader.
You also seem to slow down and savour that glass of wine she shares with Jane in her twilit garden.
You relish with her the coffee and crossword puzzle.
You enjoy watching Brother Fox, for whom Isabel has a definite weakness, and when he shyly allows her a glimpse of his cub, the reader is every bit as enchanted as Isabel.
Isabel’s is a gentler, slower world than the one we all increasingly inhabit: hers is a world where people don’t seem to have mobile phones, or use email or Skype. They call each other on the phone, and leave messages which are sometimes not delivered, or are delayed, which allows the plot to be much more interesting than if every piece of information were to fall immediately into place. As an editor, Isabel doesn’t read PDFs but typed manuscripts that come in the post.
There is an old-fashioned-ness to the world in which Isabel and Jamie and their friends live. People reflect upon good and evil. They think through the consequences of their actions. They recognize that sometimes the truth may not always be the solution. There is also a palpable sense of Scottishness that comes through in Mr. McCall Smith’s writing. His characters are definitely and proudly Scottish, but in a very low-key way. No flag-waving, no chauvinistic hype : rather a quiet pride in their country and their beautiful city, which makes the book as much about Edinburgh as about the lives of Isabel and her circle.
I do so hope it’s not a plot spoiler, but when Isabel and Jamie get married, right at the end of the novel, I had tears in my eyes, so romantic was the scene.
I can’t wait for the next chapter in the lives of these good, eminently likeable people. I am curious to know where Charlie’s imperious vocabulary will lead him.
What will replace “tiffin” and “olive” as his preferred commands?
Will we see more of Brother Fox’s cub?
Will Isabel’s niece, the difficult Cat, find love and happiness ?
Personally, unhesitatingly recommended.
Published by Little Brown, the paperback costs £13.99.
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