The Lost Art of Gratitude is the literary equivalent of a warm cup of tea: it’s calming, unhurried, and a welcome escape. The plot meanders like a lazy river, driven by characters rather than action.
The book is the sixth in the Sunday Philosophy Club series by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, best known for the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels. The series follows the exploits of Isabel Dalhousie, moral philosopher, new mother, and novice sleuth.
Isabel lives in a dreamlike world in which any problem can be solved through thought and honesty. This little bit of fantasy takes place in Edinburgh, a thriving historic city that the author clearly loves. Smith must also have a soft spot for his protagonist, as he’s given her a near-perfect life. Isabel is beautiful, intelligent, wealthy, and engaged to a handsome young musician. This is a risky combination, but Smith seems to pull it off by imbuing the Scottish lass with a great deal of conscience, spunk, and imagination.
The back cover of The Lost Art of Gratitude promises two battles of wits: one with the devious financier Minty Auchterlonie and another with Isabel’s academic foe, Professor Lettuce. I began the book hoping these would be the book’s engaging mysteries. It turns out they were not. Isabel has a mild confrontation with Professor Lettuce, a philosopher who falsely accuses her of plagiarizing. She also has a couple of slightly more-than-courteous confrontations with Minty, who uses Isabel as a pawn to intimidate her enemies.
These non-mysteries were just covers, though. The book is really a warm, philosophical take on reputations, art, motherhood, and love. Smith channels Jane Austen in his attention to social interactions, and brings life to the atmosphere and characters with flowing language.
It’s odd to read a book with almost no plot. Like a cup of tea, it may be cozy and comforting, but it’s certainly not exciting.
The clever and charming protagonist is the one outstanding feature of the The Lost Art of Gratitude. When McCall pairs a similar strong female, Botswanian sleuth Precious Ramotswe, with enthralling mysteries in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, he truly succeeds.
If readers are looking for an escapist book, they may wish to try Precious Ramotswe’s rich bush tea over a cup of Isabel Dalhousie’s Scottish Breakfast.