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Thursday, November 30, 2006

IN THE COMPANY OF CHEERUL LADIES--THE NEXT BOOK



I just finished the seventh book in Alexander McCall Smith’s magnificent series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Its title—In the Company of Cheerful Ladies. Absolutely delightful, and another book to recommend as travel companion. The final book of the series, Blue Shoes and Happiness, is still on the NYTimes bestseller list, and the Quality Paperback Bookclub is offering it as well. As for me, I dread, once again, that I am coming to the end of the series, and I hope Smith decides to continue the saga of Precious Ramotswe, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and Grace Makutsi.

It’s not giving too much away to say I enjoy the continuing company of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s two young apprentices, and in this episode, Charlie, the elder of the two, gets a little more attention. But I won’t tell you why or how. Mma Makutsi continues to grow in depth, and she is becoming a very proficient assistant detective. But I won’t tell you how she proves herself. Two new characters who, I believe, can feature prominently in future books (please, Mr. Smith!) are also introduced, but I CAN’T tell you who they are or how they intertwine with my fictional friends.

The problems in In the Company of Cheerful Ladies are a bit more personal than in previous books. Precious, herself, faces a moral dilemma that makes her very unhappy and dredges up incidents she rather forget. A personal problem with potentially dire consequences raises its ugly head, and we take a peek at the Precious’ inner being, the one that exists beneath her usually composed and controlled exterior. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, a man normally involved with problems of auto engines rather than human beings, suddenly gets a rude awakening that he must deal with immediately, and he is at a loss. These are intriguing twists, and they highlight how well the reader gets to know the characters. Smith has imbued them with realistic qualities.

The friendship between Precious and Grace continues to grow. Through the narrator, they are warmly and humorously critical of some of each other’s endearing but nonetheless, faults. Additionally, and humorously to the series’ readers, Grace has finally come to enjoy bush tea. There’s a satisfaction in seeing Grace come into her own, first with the Kalahari Typing School for Men, the new apartment, and some special additions in this book. She is a young woman, with her 97%, who seeks to improve her life and goes about it with intelligence and determination. I like the honesty she reveals when she returns to Bobonong and comments about her new recognition of its poverty and shabbiness, a result, she admits, of living in the city. You can’t go home again.

There are always poignant and perceptive comments comparing the New Botswana to the old Botswana, and in this book there are more examples of prejudices that exist. These comments, often coming at reflective moments, add to the integrity of the book and build its universality. They could be made about any society at any time.

Here’s an example of that universal quality as the narrator comments on the friendship between Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane, the matron of the orphan farm.

“The two women had known one another for many years, and had moved into that most comfortable of territories, that of an old friendship that could be picked up and put down at will without damage. Sometimes several months would go by without the two seeing one another, and this would make no difference. A conversation left unfinished at the beginning of the hot season could be resumed after the rains; a question asked in January might be answered in June, or even later, or indeed not at all. There was no need for formality or caution, and the faults of each were known to the other.”

This is a lovely description of friendship, and I think it’s wonderful that the author, a man, has this kind of insight into women’s relationships.

There’s also, in this novel, a bit of “six degrees of separation.” Again, I can’t say how, but you will see it, and you will smile. The ending of the book simply makes you want more. I will wait a bit before reading Blue Shoes and Happiness. I just don’t want the series to end.
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