Monday, April 24

The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith

Review by Claire McManus

Book #5 in "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency"

This was our book club's selection for the month of April.  Most of us had already read at least a couple of the books in this series, and we decided to read yet another.  We chose the fifth book because most of us hadn't already read this one, and with the new installment just published some of us wanted to catch up.  Plus, this series embodies what we, as a group, collectively like (fast, engaging reads that aren't burdened with psychosis, brutality, or evil).

For anyone who isn't familiar with the series - and I can't imagine there are too many such people! - the books revolve around the life and low-key adventures of Mma Precious Ramotswe, owner of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Botswana.  Precious and her able assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi (she of the 97% passing grade and extremely large-lensed spectacles), take on a series of cases while Precious also deals with the various goings-on in her life, including her frustratingly long engagement to Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni, who seems unwilling to take the final plunge into the state of marital happiness.

Six of our nine members simply adore these books, and THE FULL CUPBOARD OF LIFE was no exception.  The other three find the books enjoyable but don't count them among their favorites.  We found that all the elements that we so enjoy were equally present in this installment of the series.  Smith is simply an elegant writer; the simplicity of his prose rivals Hemingway's, but many of us actually expressed a preference for Smith's style.  The repetition of key phrases like the "tiny white van" add to the almost mythological element to the books.  Most of all, as a group we tend to enjoy books that are very positive / life-affirming, as we feel that if we want to get depressed or spend time around perverted or evil beings, we can simply watch the evening news or read the newspaper.  And you always feel good when you've turned the last page of a No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency book.

A large part of our discussion centered around whether or not this book - and the others in the series - are a realistic or an idealized portrait of life in Botswana.  In some ways, the books must surely be idealized, in that Mma Ramotswe is of the higher classes.  She owns a comfortable home in a nice part of town, and was able to open the agency, as a result of the money her beloved father left her.  So, what we see is really an upper-middle class woman's life in Botswana.  While there are brief references to the challenges faced by the people, these are quite fleeting.  For example, one of our members pointed out that the incidence of AIDS in Botswana is extremely high, one of the highest in the world - and yet there is no mention of this crisis.  (Mma Makutsi's brother, who is living with AIDS, was featured in a previous book, but that theme was dropped.)

We also felt that in Smith's world, the people tend to be drawn both subtly and in black and white.  That sounds paradoxical, but it isn't.  Smith does seem to divide his characters into two camps:  basically quite good and moral, though perhaps suffering from an occasional peccadillo; or quite bad, debauched, or dishonest.  None of us feel that this a flaw in the book; indeed, that sort of simplicity is what keeps us returning - the message of these books is always the same:  It's better to choose to be a good human being than a bad one, and we all know the difference between good and bad.  (The villains in these books are always willfully bad, which makes them all the more unsympathetic.)

While the plots of the Smith books are never pulse-pounding or heart-racing, we felt the subplots in this installment were probably the weakest of the series so far.  But this wasn't a problem, except for two of us, who like a little more suspense.  (The majority of us felt that the subplot of Mr. Maketoni's parachute jump was very much a stretch, and required more suspension of disbelief that we are accustomed to from this series.)

Interestingly - and I will try to write this in a way that is not a spoiler - we had a huge debate over the way Precious and Mr. J.L.B Maketoni do end up getting together.  The conversation was quite polarized, with some arguing that it was very much in sync with the characters, and others feeling that Mma Ramotswe had done herself a disservice.  We would be interested in other opinions about this.

All told  - A wonderful book, from a series that is very hard to dislike.  Our grade: A - (because it wasn't quite as good as other books in the series).

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