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It was a while before I took to Alexander McCall Smith's novels. I still am not terribly fond of the Ladies' Detective Agency, and the Von Igelfeld tales left me cold. But I grew to like 44 Scotland Street series, and developed a somewhat hard to justify enthusiasm for the story of the slightly snooty practical philosopher from Edinburgh's Haute Bourgeoisie, one Isabel Dalhousie. Part of the attraction was probably the Edinburgh background, as the city is a strong character in both of McCall's Scottish series (more so perhaps in the 44 Scotland Street), but the way Isabel's mind meandered seemed rather similar to mine. I also liked the slightly tongue in cheek attitude McCall Smith has to his characters, particularly those with certain airs and graces (just like Isabel).
The Lost Art of Gratitude is the sixth in the Isabel Dalhousie series. It finds Isabel happily ensconced with her boyfriend Jamie and son Charlie, now approaching toddler-hood; somehow mellowed in her interfering ways but still compelled to get involved in other people's business.
In The Lost Art of Gratitude Isabel crosses paths again with Minty Auchterlonie, the investment banker she encountered in the first book of the series (and never quite took to liking). Minty is now married an has a son of Charlie's age. A chance meeting in a cafe results in an invitation to a birthday party for Charlie - and the party results in a request from Minty that Isabel reluctantly agrees to comply with, despite her misgivings as to Minty's integrity and concerns about getting involved again. As usually in Isabel Dalhousie novels, things are not what they initially seem and Isabel has many of her assumptions, preconceptions and prejudices turned over (and over again).
In addition to the Minty Auchterlonie sub-plot, there are also other events, from another spat with Professor Christopher Dove to more complications with Isabel's niece Cat and her never-ending gallery of unsuitable boyfriends to an emergency featuring Brother Fox.
At the first sight, The Lost Art of Gratitude is constructed on the same (for me, very successful) template on which the previous five Isabel Dalhousie books were modelled. The one factor that's missing is articles submitted to Isabel's "Review" - it seems like now she owns it, she's somehow less interested in her editorial activities and thus the readers don't get the fascinating glimpses into the applied ethics papers submitted for publication. This was a pity, as I always enjoyed those interjections very much and in the current novel they seemed to be replaced by endless musings about Charlie and his olive-eating ways (NB, olive-scoffing toddlers are not as rare as McCall Smith seems to think, I am in possession of one, and that is despite never purposefully introducing the things and not being terribly fond of them myself). Frankly, babies are significantly less interesting than contrived ethical dilemmas, at east for this reviewer, and The Lost Art of Gratitude is a bit too Charlie-fixated for my liking. I suspect that McCall Smith tried - maybe - to replicate the success of the character of Bertie from 44 Scotland street, but frankly, it didn't work.
If this was the only problem with the sixth Isabel Dalhousie novel, it wouldn't be too bad: other titles in the series are not all equally good, but unfortunately, the whole book just doesn't work anywhere near as well as even the weaker of the other five. There is simply not enough interest, and I don't mean the mystery of the plot, although it's surprising, in hindsight, how much of a structure the meandering investigations of Isabel provided to the previous novels. But all the other threads seem very random, too random really, and the amount of what seems to be simply superfluous is extraordinary. It's difficult to justify accusing such a books from such a digressive and ambling series of suffering from a lack of substance, but I remain firmly convinced that this is exactly what the problem with The Lost Art of Gratitude is. Musings, every day detail and historical digressions can work very well, as they did in most other Edinburgh novels by McCall Smith. Or they can be padding., and that is what they seem to be in The Lost Art of Gratitude.
It also felt to me as if McCall Smith, engaged in the new world of Corduroy Mansions, was getting a bit bored with Isabel and Isabel's Edinburgh, and this last offering felt rather half-hearted, trying to make up for this by a surfeit of what bordered on mawkishness.
All this doesn't mean it's not a readable, pleasant book - but a disappointing one in what I came to consider to be the best McCall Smith series.
For fans only - and if you have not read any previous Isabel Dalhousie novels, don't start with this one.