The Careful Use of Compliments* - the latest installment in the Isabel Dalhousie series by prolific author Alexander McCall Smith - is a study in contradictions. It is a slow-paced mystery novel, a deep-thinking beach novel, and a deliberately old-fashioned tome that features meditations on the value of the traditional family while also telling the story of a single mother who - with the author's full approval - turns down a marriage proposal from her baby's father. Recalling a conversation about Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Isabel observes that "Like Madame Bovary, she had fallen for a younger man, although in her case she had no husband and there was no Flaubert to punish her. Women who fell desperately in love in defiance of convention were punished by their authors - Anna had been punished too; Isabel smiled at the thought, and wondered whether she would be punished for loving Jamie. She had no author, though. Isabel was real."
Not real, perhaps - but Isabel has a more genial author than either Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary. McCall Smith does not punish Isabel, though he does ask us to notice, from time to time, the gap between her theory and her practice. Isabel is a philosopher, editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, and she is conscientious to a fault, scrupulous in her efforts to define her duty and carry it out. None of that prevents her, however, from stealing her niece's ex-boyfriend, bearing a child out of wedlock, using her inheritance to buy out her editorial opponents, and weaning her baby to a bottle after only four days of "discomfort." She is not a simple character, but she is a likable one.
I wasn't a big fan of the first Isabel Dalhousie novel, The Sunday Philosophy Club. It presented itself, far more overtly than its sequels, as a species of detective fiction. There was a mysterious death, an amateur investigation, and even some fear that the heroine herself might be imperilled. Worst of all, there was no resolution - Isabel felt confident that she had solved case, but I found the evidence on which she based her conclusions to be shockingly thin.
With the sequels, however, from Friends, Lovers, Chocolate to this most recent offering, McCall Smith seems to have found his footing. There is still a thread of mystery - a case of suspected art forgery, in this novel - but the tug of suspense is only sufficient to maintain the reader's interest. The true stuff of which this novel is made is reflection - tiny, everyday incidents which become the basis for elaborate flights of fancy or intricate moral analysis. In short, this is a novel made of pure blog fodder.
Early on, Isabel acknowledges that "of all her manifold failings, thinking too much about things was one of the most egregious." I enjoy a novel that can work in the word "egregious" like that, and I enjoy a character whose thoughtfulness is so debilitating that it slows her conversations to a snail's pace, allowing time for Isabel to dive down each rabbit hole her agile mind encounters. The paying of a casual, not-wholly-sincere compliment requires her to weigh honesty with civility; the making of a lunch date prompts a reflection on the difference between Scotland and New Zealand (in the former country, the words "Let's do lunch" are a mere courtesy; in the latter, they constitute a formal invitation).
Isabel's many ethical dilemmas seem pleasantly random and meandering, but the idea that exerts the most gravitational force in this novel is the question of obligation. To what extent are we obligated to one another as human beings? The liberal individualist seeks to limit those obligations in order to secure the greatest degree of freedom. ("Don't go swimming with a liberal individualist," Isabel warns - "he might not save you if you started to drown.") A moral impartialist, on the other hand, believes that moral obligations apply universally: if my son is trapped in a burning building with a total stranger, I would be obliged to decide whom to rescue based on a toss of the coin: to rescue my son first would be to deny the equal value of all human beings.
Even before picking up the book, I had been thinking about the relationship between community and obligation due to a few recent posts around the blogosphere. The debate about redshirting, for instance, has raised the issue of how we balance our children's welfare against that of society as a whole. (For those who haven't been following the debate: "redshirting" refers to the practice of delaying kindergarten for a year so that one's child will be among the oldest kids in the class rather than the youngest.) At BlogRhet, Misc Mum has asked about the nature of obligation in the blogosphere. What do we owe to our readers, and to the bloggers whom we read? And Lawyer Mama posted a fascinating ethics dilemma last weekend that raised questions about our obligations to those who ask our help. Under what circumstances are we obliged to set our own plans - whatever they may be - aside in order to help someone else?
Isabel Dalhousie responds to such questions with a consistent desire to recognize the deep mutual obligations that bind people together. When her niece takes it upon herself to make a dentist appointment for a dental-hygiene-challenged employee, Isabel demurs initially but then admits that she would do the same: "The loss of one tooth diminishes me," she quips, paraphrasing John Donne, "For I am involved in mankind." Her stance is attractive and laudable, even if it occasionally leads to accusations of interfering (indeed, her work as an amateur detective usually stems from her inability to mind her own business).
I admire Isabel's ethical commitments - but I'm not sure I share them. I would never have pegged myself a liberal individualist, but I find myself increasingly resistant to the language of obligation. I just can't help thinking that although it's very nice to help a desperate stranger to get across alligator-infested waters so she can see her boyfriend, it's not an ethical or moral requirement. And when reading OTJ's post on redshirting a couple of week ago, I found myself nodding most vigorously in response to this comment from Ewe are Here:
I believe that you have an obligation to do what you believe is what's best for your own kids in terms of when/when not to start school. How the needs of your own children affect those around them can't be your primary concern. It just can't. Those concerns need to be addressed by society as a whole.
The same goes for blogging. In the various meta-blogging discussions that arise I always find myself fiercely resistant to the language of obligation. Blogging, like so many other things, seems healthiest to me when it's free from the bonds of guilt and compulsion. Read the posts that interest you, comment when you have something to say (and time to say it), offer support when you can. But keep the bar of expectations low for yourself and others. That's my Gospel of Selfishness in Blogging (and Life). Take it with a grain of salt.
*Review copy provided by Random House.