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Maybe I'm ungrateful...
on 7 September 2009
I really enjoyed all the previous Sunday Philosophy Club books, and the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels, but have been a little disappointed by the latest episodes in both series. In this latest instalment of Isabel Dalhousie's life all the usual ingredients are present: Cat has a new unsuitable boy-friend; Isabel interferes (this time on behalf of someone we met in the first novel in the series - Minty Auchterlonie); Isabel defeats the latest machinations of Christopher Dove; and, as ever, Isabel's mind frequently wanders off into philosophical speculation at the oddest of moments. But there is nothing really new, and I'm beginning to feel that I'm reading books that are being written to fulfil a contractual obligation rather than because the writer has something to say. This is still a well-written book - and perhaps if this had been only the second or third in the series I'd have given it four stars, but I feel something is lacking: reading this I was struck that I had no idea what time of year it was supposed to be, and also by how unbelievably cosy Isabel's life is: I'm not after EastEnders (one of the things I like best about Alexander McCall Smith's books is how people do generally manage to sort out their problems with one another peacefully), but it wouldn't be beyond the bounds of possibility for Isabel to have to deal with the occasional disagreement with Jamie, or a tantrum from Charlie, or for Grace the house-keeper to need some time off work (or maybe some of Isabel's wealth could have disappeared in the credit crunch). Isabel would be a more interesting character if she wasn't so darn reasonable all the time.
One of the characters in this book is a tight-rope walker. I'm sure any writer who returns to the same characters again and again must find it hard to strike the right balance between livening up a series (and risk alienating readers) by disrupting the world he has created in earlier books, and sticking to a winning formula so long that it becomes stale. I'm afraid Alexander McCall Smith seems to be very much in danger of the latter. Perhaps he hasn't quite fallen off the rope in this book, but I feel he needs to take some risks in the next novel in this series if he wants the Sunday Philosophy Club series to remain interesting.