Edinburgh philosopher Isabel Dalhousie owns a growing reputation for solving problems of a personal nature, often for total strangers. Jane Cooper, a visiting philosopher from Australia, asks for a favor through a mutual friend. Jane was born in Edinburgh, but sent to Australia as an infant for adoption. Now on sabbatical in Edinburgh, she decides to take the opportunity to have someone track down her heritage. Isabel, well known for her absolute discretion, becomes her confidant.
"Isabel Dalhousie and Mma Ramotswe, two very different women from two entirely different cultures, have one monumentally important characteristic in common: they are the wise women of this world."
Jane knows the identify of her mother, who died when Jane was a young child. But with no name attached to her birth certificate for her father and no knowledge of her mother’s friends, curiosity has gotten the best of her. Of course, Isabel agrees to make some inquiries, and sets out to track down the identity in the short time allotted.
Meanwhile, Isabel, who prides herself on being non-judgmental, finds that she cannot keep her nose out of the personal affairs of her niece, Cat. Cat’s taste in men has proven unreliable at best and, in Isabel’s opinion, leads inevitably to disaster. Isabel and Cat’s relationship has always been prickly, and when Cat finds yet another gorgeous hunk of a man who appears to be completely brainless, Isabel struggles to keep her opinions --- which are many --- to herself. Will Cat finally get herself out of this situation, or will Isabel interfere in Cat’s best interests, further driving a wedge between her and her only niece?
Isabel’s young son, Charlie, is walking and talking, and is as charming as his father, Jamie. Jamie and Isabel still plan on getting married, but they never seem to feel the urgency to make their relationship formal. Meanwhile, in her search for Jane’s father, the meaning of family is brought home through several incidents. Grace, Isabel’s long-time housekeeper, is becoming more and more attached to the wee bairn Charlie, even introducing herself as his aunt, which surprisingly bothers Isabel. A nephew of her old nemesis, Professor Lettuce, comes to see her just as she is editing an article he submitted to her magazine. He has a troubling confession to make that he hopes Isabel can help him resolve.
Isabel is often confronted with situations that present her the opportunity to weigh the options between right and wrong, pragmatism and absolutism. She painstakingly selects the one that seems fairest to all, often with some misgivings. In THE FORGOTTEN AFFAIRS OF YOUTH, she reluctantly guides one of her advice seekers to do something that under ordinary circumstances might be deceitful. “I have done the wrong thing, Isabel thought. I have done the wrong thing for the right reason. Again.”
Followers of the Isabel Dalhousie novels and the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series may be forgiven if they begin to believe that the wise women of these series reflect the ideals of their creator, Alexander McCall Smith. Isabel is prone to taking wool-gathering strolls along the pathways of her mind, falling into disconcertingly long silences while engaged in conversation with others. It’s in those moments of reflection that we often mull our own personal ideas on a wide range of moral dilemmas. It’s the keynote charm Smith brings to his writing.
Isabel Dalhousie and Mma Ramotswe, two very different women from two entirely different cultures, have one monumentally important characteristic in common: they are the wise women of this world. If only we had more of them.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 5, 2012