One of my favorite things to do when I travel is just watch people living their lives. In Cusco, Peru, I sat on one end of a bench in the main plaza and watched a local festival, chatting with the various people who ended up on the other end when their curiosity about me proved overwhelming. In Madrid, I had a coffee at the bar in the Corte Inglés and ended up having a wonderful conversation with the woman who sat down next to me and pulled out the novel she had just bought, one I had recently read. It’s amazing, of course, to marvel at Macchu Pichu or the Prado art museum, but these small moments of connection are what make travel transcend tourism for me.
Which might be why I like the Isabel Dalhousie Sunday Philosopher’s Club series of novels, by Alexander McCall Smith, so very much. My sister first introduced me to these gems a few years ago, when she suggested that I might enjoy the writing style and the setting in Edinburgh, Scotland. She was right on both accounts, and I’ve come to look forward to the next installments in the life of the fictional philosopher, Isabel Dalhousie, every bit as much as my husband looks forward to a new Star Wars movie. McCall Smith is more well known for his No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, which I have to confess to never having read, though they are certainly on my list of “Books I Hope to Get Around To Now That I Have More Time”. He is certainly a prolific writer, with his 44 Scotland Street and Portuguese Irregular Verbs series also on my reading radar.
The newest Isabel Dalhousie installment is The Novel Habits of Happiness (Penguin Random House, 2015). While the Sunday Philosopher’s Club books are nominally mysteries, they are gentle, thoughtful reads. There is not a great deal of action in these, so if that’s the type of mystery you relish you might find yourself disappointed. But if, like me, you love nothing more than to settle into a park bench or cafe chair and watch other people living their lives, they are marvelous options. In this latest book, the protagonist Isabel, an independently wealthy woman who edits a scholarly philosophy journal, is asked to help the friend of a friend whose son is convinced that he has been reincarnated. The action of the book revolves around Isabel’s efforts to identify where the son says he lived in a previous life even as she questions whether she even believes in the possibility.
My favorite part of immersing myself in Isabel Dalhousie’s world are her ruminations about pretty much every aspect of life, which is of course what one would expect from a philosopher. Witness this consideration of the phenomenon of Las Vegas:
She (Isabel) was only half American – through her sainted mother- but that was enough to make her blush with shame for the mere fact that Las Vegas existed. There was so much of which America could be proud: it had made New York and San Francisco, along with a hundred other cities with parks and art galleries and universities, but then it had spawned Las Vegas, a place that carried vulgarity and venality to undreamed-of heights. And yet people loved it…Perhaps this was a concomitant of freedom: if people were free, then some of them, at least, would be free of the constraints of good taste. Perhaps Las Vegas was just a great big cultural burp, of the sort that you are bound to get in a free society where people can burp if they wish.
A generalisation? Why yes…
The trouble with generalisations was that they were generalisations, which in itself was a generalisation.
Despite being half American, Isabel is very immersed in her Scottish identity, which is another charming aspect of the series. Having visited Scotland several times, both before, during, and after my sister’s marriage to a Scot, I have retained a deep affection for the country. I agree with Isabel’s desire to treasure and nurture her unique cultural heritage:
She did not want that Scotland to disappear, that Scotland of ceilidh bands and kilts; it was hers, shared with so many others, a small fragment, an offshoot of the feeling that bound people together, that meant that people were not strangers to one another. Every country needed that…little things, yes, and embarrassing too; sneered at; cliched in their repetition and their superficiality, but part of an identity that saved us from feeling utterly lonely and detached, mere passengers on a circular rock spinning through space.
Often Isabel visits art galleries and musuems, which parallels another interest of mine, and I have found that her analysis of pictures rivals that of the best art historians:
Was that what made a Vermeer so arresting? There was an afternoon quality to it; a stillness, a warmth, that seemed to support the poeple and things in the painting, that gave them body.
If it seems like my analysis of these delightful books is a bit wandering, I’ll quote Isabel again. And, if you are looking for something to read that immerses you in another life and gives you a great deal to think about, then I suggest you make a cup of tea and curl up with Isabel Dalhousie.
She thought of what Jamie had said. She knew that she had a tendency to allow her mind to wander, but surely that was what made the world interesting: one thought led to another, one memory triggered another. How dull it would be, she thought, not to be reminded of the interconnectedness of everything; how dull for the present not to evoke the past; for here not to imply there.