Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Careful Use of Compliments

by Alexander McCall Smith

Thumbs Up.

Until the other day, I had been under the mistaken idea that the Isabel Dalhousie series was to have only three books.  I suppose this was a surmise on my part based on the neatly finished feeling at the end of the third book.  But I quickly grabbed this the forth installment when I saw it.  And I look forward to picking up the fifth and sixth books in the series.

For those who are unfamiliar with Isabel Dalhousie, she is the the editor of the fictional Review of Applied Ethics.  She lives in Edinburgh and is independently wealthy.  She is now mother to Charlie, who in this book is a few months old.  In each book, Isabel ends up investigating/prying into some mystery.  The difference between investigating and prying into is a fine line when viewed through the lenses of an expert on ethical matters.  And this crux gives Isabel much food for her musings.

Although these books are mysteries, the focus is more on the ethical and social implications of the various circumstances Isabel ponders.  I find them excellent material for re-examining my own worldview and they challenge me to internally defend my own stance on various contemporary social and political issues.

The characters are very likable; their personalities are well developed.  The plots are always compelling. 

The series is also very culturally rich.  Isabel and her friends frequent the opera and orchestra; they discuss poetry and works of art.  Although I didn't take the time to do so this time, the books often inspire me to read up on some of the composers or musical works,  literary figures or artists who are mentioned.

In The Careful Use of Compliments, Isabel investigates the authenticity of some paintings that have recently come into the market.  She nearly loses her job and faces an ethically tough decision regarding that potential loss.

Although Isabel knows that children do better in two parent homes, she still will not marry Jamie, which does not sit well with me.  I just want to reach in there an twist their conversations to allow each of their true feelings to be addressed.  Because she a woman who is so ethically upright, Isabel is loth to let Jamie know how she feels for fear of making him feel trapped into marrying her.  This is just one example of how her reasoned ethical stances often lead to contradictory ends.

In The Careful Use of Compliments, Isabel and Jamie travel to the Isle of Jura in the Inner Hebrides.  And yes, thanks to Mr. McCall Smith's vivid descriptions I now have yet another vacation spot to dream about.  The author makes the landscape come alive for his readers.

It has been a couple of years since I have read one of these books, but in this one Isabel seems to spend more time than in the previous books examining the ideas of big government and social programs, inherited wealth and wealth in general.  George Orwell and his writing of 1984 play a role in this title, as do the disparity of financial background between Isabel and Jamie, and also Isabel's grandfather's money from the oil industry.

Although I don't always come to the same conclusions as Isabel, I always enjoy reading about her and her exploits.  And yes, exploit is not a word Isabel would like me to use regarding her investigations.  She always operates from an ethically well-thought argument.  She holds herself to very high standards within her rational humanist worldview.  She would most certainly never intentionally exploit anyone.

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