As you may have noticed from the massive quote on my sidebar, I have been reading Alexander McCall Smith. I started reading The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in February as a way to pass the time. I loved the unfamiliar setting (Botswana) and the wonderfully drawn Precious Ramotswe, the first lady detective in Botswana's capital city. I plowed through the first three books in the series in a matter of weeks (the fourth is on my floor waiting to be started), finding them at a fantastic local used bookshop. In addition to the endearing characters and fascinating setting, I was drawn to McCall Smith's writing. Despite being a detective and dealing with some of the ugly sides of the human experience, there is something so joyful and enjoyable about Mma Ramotswe and her life. I wanted to read more of McCall's writing, so I picked up The Sunday Philosophy Club at my public library. While this series is set a continent away in Edinburgh, Scotland and focuses on a privileged philosopher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics who gets involved in solving others' problems and mysteries out of a sense of what she calls 'moral obligation, the same spirit inhabited the books. As I was reading, I finally found the adjective to describe McCall Smith's writing: gentle.
What I love about these books is the consideration and gentleness with which McCall Smith treats his characters and their lives. Even though the two women that lead the two series are often dealing with humanity's individual and collective faults, frailties, and foibles, the ugliness is not passed onto the reader. In most of the cases, the characters involved are treated with respect, compassion, and the recognition that no one is perfect and everyone messes up. To give forgiveness to others is a duty because the main characters (and we the readers) need it too. I feel this is missing from the majority of modern fiction and life in general. Like the quote on the sidebar states, we have lost something as a society. We are assertive, aggressive, and constantly in one another's face. That takes its toll. If we could remember kindness, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness we could all benefit. I love that his writing reflects that in such a subtle and un-didactic way.
While I relish The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series for transporting me to a far-off land and a life completely different from my own, I derive a much deeper pleasure from The Sunday Philosophy Club series and its heroine, Isabel Dalhousie. In Isabel I feel I have found a kindred spirit. A reserved woman who overthinks everything and, under the weight of her sense of moral obligation, feels an enormous amount of self-doubt and guilt. She is imperfect, self-sacrificing to a fault, prone to long inner monologues about what is the right way to act, and long inner debates over the discrepancy between what she wants to do and what she should do. Because of this she tends to not say what she feels and do what is best for others. This is how she ends up shouldering the burden of others' problems. Additionally, she has the endearing habit of exploring topics thoroughly, long after her conversational partners have tired of the subject. And she has a flair for making random and difficult-to-follow connections that lead to charming, if confusing, non sequiturs. While I'm not in my early forties nor in love with a man a decade younger than myself who is also my niece's ex-boyfriend (my niece is not nearly old enough for such things, nor will she be when I am 42. Thankfully), I do recognize the overthinking, the self-doubt, the guilt, the inner monologues and dialogues, the cluttered conversing, and the unspoken want for the wrong person (even if he is quite fantastic in his own way). It is rare for me to find such a kindred spirit in books. There are always things I can relate to in my favorite books, but I don't usually find such integral things that we have in common. The only other two I can think of right now are Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot who, while wonderful, are over two centuries old. I could use a modern compatriot.