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The Forgotten Affairs of Youth is the eighth novel in the "Sunday Philosophy Club" series featuring Isabel Dalhousie, by the prolific Alexander McCall Smith (author of, among much else, the wildly successful No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, and the 44 Scotland Street series).
I think the best word to describe these books is "gentle". Philosopher Isabel does a bit of mild detection, but the "detective" plots seem to get thinner with every new instalment; if you want murder and mayhem, this is definitely not the place to find it. They are detective novels only in a rather "quirky, incidental way". In this particular instance, Isabel (a forty-something living in Edinburgh, owner and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, fiancee of Jamie and mother of Charlie) is asked to help Jane, a visiting Australian academic who was adopted in Scotland as a baby, to trace her natural parents. There are no great dramatic surprises in store and the outcome is, to be honest, fairly obvious from early on. Meanwhile, Isabel's life continues in its usual pattern... she spends time with son Charlie and fiance Jamie and ponders on how lucky she is to have them, she deals with the latest machinations of the unpleasant Professor Lettuce (this time involving his nephew, one Max Lettuce), she helps her niece Cat in the deli and contemplates Cat's unfortunate predilection for unsuitable boyfriends. Mainly, she muses philosophically on a variety of topics, including children's books, computer games and the ethics of having money.
The humour is gentle; there aren't many laugh-out-loud moments, although there were a couple (the unhappy Glaswegian spirits being one of them). Very little happens, although I didn't actually realise quite how little until I thought about it afterwards. New characters are introduced, such as an assistant in the deli, but nothing much comes of it. Isabel chats to people. She eats some mushrooms. She buys some shares. She walks around Edinburgh. She thinks about things. If this relative uneventfulness is a problem for you, don't read this series of books - you won't enjoy them.
Isabel is a likeable character, a good person, even if her life is rather too perfect. Jamie is far too ideal a boyfriend to ever really exist, and Charlie (who has a passion for olives and would never, it appears, dream of having a tantrum) may be the least believable two-year-old ever. I suspect Alexander McCall Smith doesn't spend much time around two-year-olds, as I don't think he has much grasp of what they can and can't do or how they might behave!
Overall I very much enjoyed this. I find Isabel's world rather beguiling if a little unrealistic, and I love the way Alexander McCall Smith writes about Edinburgh, and in fact the way he writes generally. I enjoy Isabel's reflections on everyday moral and political conundrums and always feel I wouldn't mind living in her world, which often seems so much more civilised than the real one.
All in all a very pleasant reading experience, if this is the sort of thing you like. Which I do.
Published in hardback by Little, Brown on 1 Sep 2011. Publisher's price £17.99, 256 pages. The paperback is out next year.