Girning and Gripe Water: The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith

September 8, 2007 at 11:52 am (Mystery fiction)

careful.jpg alexander-mccall-smith-1.jpg What a perfect book for one such as myself, about to embark for Scotland! (No – I’m not “taking ship;” I’m flying, alas.) There it was, just sitting on the shelf at the library – -where I was employed until Friday August 31. (Sob! No – we won’t go there…) I didn’t even realize that the fourth Isabel Dalhousie book had come out. It is ever thus in this information-overloaded world: the one bit of information that you want – need – to know ends up reaching you quite by accident. So it was in the case of this book, with its misleadingly prosaic title, The Careful Use of Compliments.

[This review will not be a “spoiler” with regard to this particular novel; nevertheless, I will be discussing the dramatic developments in Isabel’s life that have been carried forward from the previous book in the series, The Right Attitude To Rain.]

This novel is loaded with riches. Alexander McCall Smith’s writing is marvelous, full of grace and wit. And speaking of grace, that is the name of Isabel’s long time housekeeper. Now that the lady of the house has a “wee bairn,” Grace has added childminding to her duties in the Dalhousie household. Many women would kill for the kind of freedom of movement this affords Isabel, but with that freedom comes a sharing of infant care that does not always go smoothly. For instance, one day Isabel comes home, having left little Charlie with Grace, to find that because he had been “girning” (complaining), she had given him a tonic called (rather wonderfully) gripe water. This turns out to be an herbal mixture containing mainly fennel and ginger. It has been used traditionally in Scotland to calm fretful infants. But Isabel’s knowledge of gripe water is that it is spiked with gin! – or at least, used to be. Apparently it no longer is, but she is plenty upset with Grace anyway. I couldn’t help thinking, well, Isabel, there is a price to be paid for the fabulous convenience of being able to turn little Charlie’s care over to another woman at a moment’s notice. gripe.jpg

McCall Smith’s novel is loaded with the lore of Scotland and illuminated by his love of that country. edinburgh.jpg Edinburgh springs to vibrant life, and the countryside is described in such terms that you immediately wish to be there.

thistle-view.jpg jurascotland460.jpg Jura, an island in the Inner Hebrides, bleak, windswept and mysterious, sounds like heaven – especially to those like Isabel and her lover, Charlie’s father Jamie, who desperately need to escape the city for a while. Jamie, a musician, is the castoff boyfriend of Isabel’s niece Cat. Cat, a rather foolish, impetuous young woman, has a way of throwing away pearls richer than all her tribe. Isabel scoops this one up and finds herself immersed in a passionate love affair. At one point, while preparing a meal for the two of them, she has an epiphany: “I am blessed, and being blessed is something more than just having something; it is a state of mind in which the good of the world is illuminated, is understood. It is as if one is vouchsafed a vision of some sort…a vision of love, of agape, of the essential value of each and every living thing.”

(While Isabel is having these flights of the sublime, Cat is experiencing feelings of a very different sort. She may have rejected this attractive and devoted young man, but that does not mean that she was prepared to hand him over to Isabel. Thus does the quirky human heart operate, without regard for logic.)

Isabel Dalhousie is alternately prickly and congenial, but she is never dull. Holder of a doctoral degree in philosophy from Cambridge University, she possesses a beautiful mind, whose subtle operations McCall Smith frequently makes us privy to. She holds people to a very high standard of behavior, but the person she is hardest on is herself. Every thought and action is examined for signs of venality or meanness. This may sound tedious, but it is actually quite a fascinating process to observe. At one point in the novel, Isabel is awaiting a visit from one Christopher Dove, a philosophy professor. Professor Dove, who is coming up to Edinburgh from London, is about to supplant her as editor of her beloved Review of Applied Ethics. Although she has no liking for him, politeness would dictate that she offer to meet him at the train. The resentment and anger she is feeling at the moment, however, cause her to put off making the offer until it is too late. She berates herself thus: “That was a lesson which she should not need to learn at this stage of her life. Do not act meanly, do not be unkind, because the time for setting things right may pass before your heart changes course.”

Isabel is the fortunate beneficiary of inherited wealth. Sensitive on the subject of money, she uses it judiciously with regard to her own needs and generously with regard to family and friends. One indulgence that she does permit herself is the collection of fine Scottish paintings. elizabeth-blackadder-two-cats-and-flowers-5154.jpg We get to tag along as she visits galleries, museums, and auction houses. A possible instance of art forgery accounts for what little actual mystery there is in this novel. In addition to these delightful excursions, McCall Smith treats the reader to jewel-like poetry quotations and fascinating philosophical tidbits, such as the following: “There were two horses in the soul, [Isabel] thought, as Socrates had said in Phaedrus – the one, unruly, governed by passions, pulling in the direction of self-indulgence; the other, restrained, dutiful, governed by a sense of shame.”

[Pictured above: Two Cats and Flowers by Elizabeth Blackadder]

sunday.jpg chocolate.jpg right-attitude.jpg I’ve talked to a number of readers who say they were bored by The Sunday Philosophy Club . I would suggest bypassing that book (although I’d like to go on record as having enjoyed it myself). I have not read the second in the series, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, but I can recommend without hesitation the third, The Right Attitude To Rain. From there, you can segue nicely into this book. Come on; give it a try! I currently know of no other novel in which a discussion of the philosophy of taxation (a surprisingly intriguing subject – or not surprisingly, we all of us being taxpayers!) is immediately preceded by a sentence such as this one: “Blessedness: she could not believe her state of blessedness; this young man, with all his beauty and gentleness, in her arms, hers.”

shirtwaist.jpg I picture Isabel Dalhousie as having curly brown hair, intense eyes, and a slim figure. I see her wearing a shirtwaist dress – old-fashioned, but somehow suitable for her. McCall Smith tells you virtually nothing about her appearance, so the reader is free to speculate…


  1. Scottish Art: Behold the Towie Ball! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Edinburgh, and Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels, particularly the latest one, The Careful Use of Compliments. McCall Smith’s deep attachment to the culture of his native country is everywhere evident in […]

  2. An occasion for celebrating books, with a poignant aftermath « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] A Scottish setting, though not a police procedural: The Right Attitude to Rain* by Alexander McCall Smith (Isabel Dalhousie series) […]

  3. Sharon Ledderhof said,

    I have read all of the books in this series and besides finding myself thoroughly enjoying them, I love Isabel as if she were a treasured friend. Its the oddest thing. But I also find myself loving Alexander McCall Smith. How could one not love the possessors of such beautiful, creative, and offbeat minds? Their ways of observing the world very often mirror my own. I feel like I am in the company of close friends when I read these books.
    Oddly enough, I haven’t yet read any of the Ladies #1 Detective series. I started to listen to one on audiobook and had a hard time getting into it, but I’m going to give it another try because I just know that I’m missing out on something wonderful. I’ve also read and enjoyed the Scotland Street Series up to book three and am looking forward to the next ones. And of course the Portugese Irregular Verbs! AMS is at the top of my list of favourite authors. I find that if I’m feeling off or struggling with depression or anything like that, his books, (but especially The Sunday Philosophers series) are like wonderful soul medicine. There are so many reminders that the world, with all of its terrors and pain, is still overflowing with blessings, beauty and joy. I also am enjoying reading your reviews and so far with the books I have read, agree with all of your observations.

  4. Roberta Rood said,

    Sharon, thanks for this gracious and thoughtful comment. It’s interesting that you responded more to the Isabel Dalhousie series than to the No.1 Ladies’ Detective novels. I personally love the Isabel Dalhousie books – and like you, I just plain love her! She is such a sympathetic, complex, vivid creation. And I just love the way McCall Smith’s love of Edinburgh & Scotland as a whole shines throgh in these novels.
    That said, I’m also a great fan of the other series. since Morality for Beautiful Girls, I’ve been listening to them rather than reading them. There is such deep humanity & decency about Mma Ramotswe.

    Thanks again for your comments..

  5. Feeling Scottish… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Friday night, I led a discussion of Alexander McCall Smith’s The Careful Use of Compliments. Re-reading this novel, I was enraptured all over […]

    • Pamela said,

      What does the title mean as it applies to the book???

      • Roberta Rood said,

        In the third paragraph down, I explain that “girning” means complaining and “gripe water” is a tonic used to calm infants & children. If you mean, what do those terms have to do with the novel’s title – well, nothing, as far as I can tell! I like to take a phrase, or term, or sentence, from the books I review & place them in the title line. I liked the whole business with Isabel & Grace and the use of gripe water. Amazingly, I actually found a picture of a bottle of it! Also I liked the fact that these two terms were unique to Scotland – at least, so far as I know.

        To tell you the truth, I find Alexander McCall Smith’s titles for the books in this series to be rather cryptic. If you’re asking what “Careful Usee of Compliments” actually means regarding the novel – either I can’t remember right now, or I never knew to begin with.

  6. Friday night, February 19: we emerge gratefully from our snowbound solitude to celebrate the Thirty-Second Annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] a moment in one of Alexander McCall Smith’s recent Isabel Dalhousie novels when Isabel reflects on the many gifts that Ireland has given to the world. To that, one can only […]

  7. Books with a Past; hope for the future of the book, in whatever form it may take « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] I have my favorites (and I would include in this group teachers, professors, and scholars, like Isabel Dalhousie, who live outside academic […]

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