Although I’ve never read any of McCall Smith’s other novels in his “Isabel Dalhousie” series, this one’s title caught my eye and I settled in for a warm romantic visit. No such luck, I’m afraid. Instead, I got a meandering inconclusive plot which goes nowhere, with characters that learn nothing, and without even a good mystery behind it all. So what’s the point?
Isabel is editor of an erudite magazine on obscure philosophical matters. She is in her late thirties, living alone in Edinburgh, Scotland and still licking her wounds after a love affair gone bad many years earlier. Isabel maintains a close friendship with twenty-something Jamie, the jilted musician boyfriend of her niece Cat, who runs a high-class delicatessen blocks away. Cat has never looked back at Jamie after dumping him, but Jamie still lives in hope of recapturing Cat’s attention. Isabel discovers—rather late, it appears—that her “friendship” with Jamie is in fact an unrequited crush on the young man, who is in fact having a fling with an older married woman. Two other men enter the picture. One is a wealthy older Italian who follows Cat back to Edinburgh after her vacation in Italy, but who makes a romantic play for Isabel that goes absolutely nowhere, and the other is Ian, a fascinating man just recovered from a heart transplant, who is having visions that don’t belong to him. Isabel takes it upon herself to uncover the mystery behind the visions, even after she discovers that Ian is married and not a potential love interest. Why she pursues this mystery without even consulting Ian is anybody’s guess.
At this point, the plot should thicken, as they say, but instead it dribbles here and there and it was all I could do to finish this book. Isabel is a self-indulgent and very irritating busybody who fancies herself a philosopher and clearly considers herself superior to those around her. She enjoys giving charitable contributions anonymously, so she can pat herself on the back every chance she gets. She drops quotes from prominent poets into every conversation, clearly hoping to impress. She sticks her nose into everybody’s business—including that of her housekeeper and even grieving strangers! Worst of all, she pities herself constantly and is, in sum, a thoroughly unappealing “heroine.” Does she solve the mystery of the visions? Well, yes and no. Not really, but sort of. Get it?
While I’ll confess to finding some of Isabel’s (that is, McCall Smith’s) divergences into philosophy, morality, ethics and religion interesting, they are as out-of-place in this book as Isabel’s interferences in other people’s lives are simply out of order. In sum, I don’t think I’ll be visiting Isabel Dalhousie again anytime soon.