Thursday, May 31, 2018

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

Time somehow got away from us, and it has been nearly two years since we listened to an Alexander McCall Smith book. How did that even happen? Anyway, it’s nice to be back.

As I noted before, we have listened to these all out of order, due to what was in stock at our library. However, having time to plan ahead, the last couple have been chosen to fill in the gaps. I still haven’t read or listened to the first one, but my kids have, so we haven’t gone back to do that one. 

Morality For Beautiful Girls is the third book, and comes directly after The Tears of the Giraffe, which we listened to most recently. Mma. Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni are engaged, and they have essentially adopted a couple of orphans. However, not all is well.

First, the detective agency is having difficulty making a profit. This leads Mma. Ramotswe to consider laying off her assistant, Mma. Makutsi. This is problematic in part because Mma. Makutsi not only relies on her income for her own support: she is supporting a dying brother as well as her family back in the village.

Second, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni has lapsed into clinical depression, and isn’t bothering to eat or come into work, leaving the repair shop in the hands of the lazy and incompetent apprentices. What is to be done?

And then there are the two cases. A wealthy and powerful government official seeks the aid of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency to gather evidence that his brother’s wife is trying to poison her husband. This plot takes Mma. Ramotswe to a distant cattle ranch - and into a hive of unhealthy family dynamics. Meanwhile, Mma. Makutsi is left to mind the agency (and manage the repair shop until Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni recovers.) She is handed a large retainer, and an intriguing task: can she determine which of the finalists for a beauty contest is likely to bring honor, and not disgrace, to the contest?

As usual, McCall Smith handles the complex moral issues at stake with humor and subtlety. I particularly appreciated in this case the focus on Mma. Makutsi, who is more perceptive than she appears at first glance. She fully understands the patriarchal dynamics at play in the contest, and the way that women are punished for sexual behavior that men get away with every day - particularly in a “traditional” culture.

Also interesting in this book is the dynamic between the wealthy and their hired help. I don’t want to spoil the way one case ends, but I will note that there is often a tendency for the wealthy to take advantage of their economic power and treat their underlings as subhuman - and indeed to try to control their lives.

McCall Smith also shows, once again, a keen understanding of family grievances. Having spent the last 18 years assisting families in settling their ancestors’ estates, I certainly have seen many of these in play. Some days, one feels less like a lawyer and more like a therapist.

I also appreciated that McCall Smith addressed mental illness. I was raised in a belief tradition that had (and still has) a tendency to make all psychological issues into “moral” or “spiritual” issues. Thus, many I know have been shamed and condemned, rather than treated with compassion - and modern medical understanding. I think this is improving in our culture as a whole, but for my religious tradition, it has rather gone backwards in the last few decades, which is sad. I hope for better things with the next generation.

This is my 5th (and the kids’ 6th) of the Mma. Ramotswe series. There are quite a few, and I hope to keep them in our regular rotation.


Here are the other Alexander McCall Smith books we have listened to previously (in the order we experienced them):

Blue Shoes And Happiness (#7 in the series)
The Full Cupboard of Life (#5 in the series)
The Tears of the Giraffe (#2 in the series)

The Sunday Philosophy Club (from another series - read without the kids)

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