“It was a landscape of mists and distances, beneath a sky that was somehow washed, attenuated, softened.” – The Lost Art of Gratitude, by Alexander McCall Smith

May 29, 2010 at 1:38 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland)

Ron and I have a favorite table at Tersiguel’s Country French Restaurant. It’s a small table for two in an alcove on the first floor. The window right next to it is stained glass; it depicts a fox with russet fur, a sinuous body and the trademark bushy tail. This creature always puts me in mind of the fox that frequents Isabel Dalhousie’s back garden in Edinburgh – she calls him Brother (or Br’er) Fox.

Yes I know – oft have I written of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels. But each time yet another finely wrought gem in this series falls into my hands, I am moved to sing its praises anew.

In The Lost Art of Gratitude, we find ourselves once more in beautiful Edinburgh with Isabel, her musician lover Jamie, and their little son Charlie. These three people are enclosed within a tightly woven web of love. Here, Isabel, thinks with happy anticipation of the time when Charlie will begin music lessons:

‘She smiled at the thought of Charlie with his unformed lips and a violin. He would attempt to eat it if she gave him one now, but they could start when he was three, which would come soon enough. And then, after the violin, when he was old enough, ten or so, he could learn the Highland bagpipes, starting on a practice chanter before proceeding to a real set, ebony drones and all, to the full, primeval wail that sent shivers down the spine. He would wear the kilt–Macpherson tartan again–and play the pipes; oh, Charlie, dear little Charlie.

Alongside Isabel’s newly acquired domestic bliss, two plot lines unfold. One involves a wealthy investment banker named Minty Auchterlonie. Minty is harboring a secret that she fears will endanger her marriage. She entreats Isabel, whom she knows only slightly, to help extricate her from the quandary in which she finds herself. At the same time, Isabel is once more fending off assaults on her professional integrity from her nemesis, Professor Christopher Dove and his assistant nemesis, Professor Lettuce.

(Isabel has a great time with the latter’s name: “Poor Lettuce: his salad days were over.” “Professor Lettuce must have gone through his childhood being the butt of mockery from other  boys–fortunate boys not named after vegetables–simply because of his unusual name….”)

Isabel has a showdown with Lettuce over lunch (appropriately) that had me wanting to stand up and cheer!

As with all the Dalhousie novels, The Lost Art of Gratitude is suffused with a love of Scotland and Scottish culture. And, of course, Isabel cherishes a particularly strong affection for Edinburgh, a city she has known her entire life:

‘Everywhere in this city, everywhere Isabel went,  there were memories. As an eighteen-year-old, she had come to a poetry reading on this side of the square, in the School of Scottish Studies; it was given by a Gaelic poet, who read both his own language and English. Isabel had been unable to understand his Gaelic, but had followed it on a crib sheet thoughtfully provided by the organisers; it had sounded like the wind and waves breaking on the shore; the words of a language that suited its landscape.

At one point in the novel. something happens to Brother Fox that calls forth a compassionate response from both Jamie and Isabel, and from others as well. I found this entire novel to be compulsively readable, but this scene was especially riveting. It said more about the characters than any wordy description possibly could have done.


  1. Meredith Chancellor said,

    I, too, am a huge fan of Isabel (and her circle), and love the Mma Ramotswe series for the gentle wisdom it contains. If you haven’t picked up La’s Orchestra Saves the World yet, you MUST add it to your pile of books to the ceiling, especially if you enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. How does one man create such exquisite characters, and keep such different series as these all going at once? I don’t need an answer to that–I just need him to continue all my beloved series, and to keep the descriptions of place beautifully-enough-rendered to transport me!


  2. Newsweek’s book issue (August 2, 2010) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] there are, of course others: Alexander McCall Smith, both the No.1 Ladies Detective novels and the Isabel Dalhousie series; Archer Mayor‘s wonderfully intelligent procedurals; Ross MacDonald, whose crafty plotting […]

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