Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

I didn't like this book - it is a long time since I have actually read a book I didn't like all the way to completion. In fact, I have a pretty good hit rate - I pick a book up, make a pretty snap decision as to whether I'll like it, and then if I think I will, I read it. This is my first failure since The Bridhes of Madison County - that I read because so many people had and were raving about it: it rates as my personal worst. I only finished because I thought that such a turgid mass must have a really great spin at the end to make up for it: it didn't. I finished The Sunday Philosphy Club because people I actually know and like had said good things about it and, while I wasn't blown away, I didn't mind the first in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.Precious Ramotswe was perfectly amiable and had a decent homespun moral sense.

Isabel Dalhousie was just annoying. Some people feel sorry for her, she's quite a lonely lady, she seems to be the sole remaining member of her Sunday Philosophy Club. I still haven't worked out whether she is to be taken seriously or if the work is really satirical (which would make it stronger). Isabel spends her time as the editor of a journal of applied ethics, so we get frequent references to famous philosphers and their take on various things. One of Isabel's major philosophical stances is that one must reflect before reaching judgment, she is quite fulsome in her criticism of those who do not. But blow me down if she decides she doesn't like her niece's new boyfriend because he wears strawberry pink corduroy trousers, or takes an instant dislike to a woman called Minty because she is hard-faced: Isabel then takes great delight in finding others who don't like her. So - there may be an element of pillorying the pretensions of philosphers here, but Isabel is hardly the typical philospher.

The actual plot of the book leads on to other annoyances: Isabel is at the theatre, there has been a performance by the Reykavich Orchestra - her going seems to have been a personal favour on her part, she was shocked to find that they were attempting Stockhasen. No, I don't know either, and it is never explained (reading Wikipedia I get the feeling that he was pretty adventurous but there's a high snob value to dismissing him as last year's news: I also see that he claims that September 11 was a "work of art", Lucifer's best so far). Anyway, there's a lot of thinking going on in her head about the courtesies owed by visiting orchestras, and so on - all subsequent upon her seeing the body of a young man fall from the gods nearby. By page 75 she finally thinks that maybe there was something not quite right about this death, maybe he was pushed and she should investigate. Here's where her instinctive reactions get her into trouble: of course, hard faced Minty is an immediate suspect. So, we spend all but the last two pages pursuing false leads, interpsersed with Isabel's commentary on art. She likes paintings of cats and tulips. Enough said.

I think my major problem with her is that she was just so far removed from the things I'm interested in, although the author has her do things to show she's still in touch, such as going up to a young fellow with a few piercings and asking him about them, as if your average 40 year old inhabitant of Edinburgh will never have seen them before. He is all about not wanting a uniform: she responds with the obvious point that he might simply have adopted another. The only thing she does that I think I would do is go to a talk on Becket.

The other characters didn't help very much: Jamie is the perfect young man, the kind of chap every maiden aunt would want her niece to be with, while she has gone off with the caddish Toby, he of the strawberry cords. Then there are a couple of flatmates of the deceased we see briefly and various people from the financial world, who fill Isabel in on things like insider trading and the relative probity of the Scottish financial world.

Looking over at Amazon, I see my response is hardly unique, although there are plenty who give it five stars.


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