A new baby brings an abundance of joy to Isabel and her husband, Jamie—but almost-four-year-old Charlie refuses to acknowledge Magnus, and Isabel struggles to impress upon her older son the patience and understanding that have guided her throughout her own life.
These are the very qualities that bring Bea Shandon, an old acquaintance, to seek Isabel’s help. Something of a matchmaker, Bea has introduced a wealthy female friend to a cosmetic surgeon, but soon uncovers information leading her to doubt his motives. Isabel agrees to find out more, but as her enquiries take an unexpected turn, she starts to wonder whom exactly she should be investigating. As ever, Isabel’s intelligence, wit, and empathy come to her aid as she grapples with issues like friendship and its duties, the obligation of truthfulness, and the importance of perspective.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:August 24, 1948
Place of Birth:Zimbabwe
Read an Excerpt
“Adlestrop,” said Isabel Dalhousie.
Jamie thought for a moment. They were sitting in their kitchen, on one of those indecisive days that was summer, but not quite yet; a day when the heating might as well be off as on, but when prudence—and superstition—required it still to be kept going. If you lived in Scotland and you turned off your heating too early, then the weather gods—stern, Nordic and unforgiving—could send a body of cold air down from the Arctic and remind you that they, not you, were in control.
Jamie at least had taken off his sweater—as an act of faith, thought Isabel—while she had kept hers on. One of the newspapers, glimpsed in the local newsagent’s shop, had featured the headline Weathermen say summer will be scorching! but Isabel remembered that this particular newspaper said much the same thing every year, out of concern for its readers, she decided, who otherwise were deprived of good news, and who were desperate for any meteorological crumb of comfort.
“Yes, I remember it,” said Jamie, looking at her from over the table. “Although I’ve never been there, of course. It all depends on what one means by remember.” He paused. “Not that I want to sound too much like you, Isabel.”
She smiled; the allusion had not been lost on her. They were playing Free Association, a game they sometimes resorted to when conversation failed, when there was no newspaper or magazine to browse, or when there was simply nothing else to think about. Each would come up with a name of a person or a place, and then the other would describe the thoughts that the word triggered. They had not invented it, of course: Isabel was careful to credit Freud for that, even if there were plenty of other practitioners, including Proust, who, she felt, only had to glance at something before he would be off into several pages of triggered memories.
Her reference was to the railway station at which Edward Thomas’s train had stopped one day in 1914. Adlestrop—seeing the name on the platform sign had prompted the famous poem: the steam hissed; somebody cleared his throat; no one came or left on the bare platform. Yes. I remember Adlestrop was the first line, and this had been what triggered Jamie’s response. She was proud of him: few people bothered to remember poetry any more, but Jamie did and could reel off screeds of it. “It somehow sticks in my mind,” he once said. “I just remember it. All sorts of poetry.”
“Things you learned at school?”
He nodded. “Especially those. We were encouraged to commit poems to memory. Shakespeare’s sonnets, Wordsworth, Byron. The lot. Remember Hiawatha? Longfellow’s still there.” He smiled at her. “Or some of it. On the shores of Gitche Gumee, / Of the shining Big-Sea-Water, / Stood . . .”
“Nokomis,” supplied Isabel. “My mother loved that poem and read it all to me—all how many stanzas? It goes on forever, doesn’t it? Still, Nokomis . . . Now then . . . Stood Nokomis, the old woman, / Pointing with her finger westward . . .” She paused as the words, with their insistent, repetitive rhythm, came back to her. She had not thought about Nokomis for a long time. Then she continued, “Nokomis sent him off to avenge her father, didn’t she?”
“She did,” said Jamie. “It was somewhat vindictive of her, don’t you feel?”
“Oh, I think you’re being a bit unfair. Nokomis was right to encourage him to deal with Megissogwon who was, after all, Tall of stature, broad of shoulder, / Dark and terrible in aspect, / Clad from head to foot in wampum . . . My goodness, why did I remember that?”
Jamie laughed. “What exactly is wampum? I was never quite sure what the word meant.”
“Shell beads,” said Isabel. “They were used as money, as well as being worn. You might describe Wall Street brokers as clad in wampum. I suspect they probably are.”
But now it was his turn. Leaning back, looking up at the ceiling, he said, “Glyndebourne.”
Isabel’s reply was immediate. It was a rule of Free Association that if you did not reply within ten seconds you lost your turn and the other player had another go. It was a further rule—invented by Jamie—that if you hesitated twice in a row you had to get up and make tea.
“Wagner,” she replied.
He looked at her. “Glyndebourne doesn’t make me think of Wagner,” he said. “It makes me think of Britten.”
She shook her head. “That’s not the point of this game, Jamie. You say the first thing that comes into your head, not into somebody else’s. And another rule is that you can’t argue with the other player’s association. If I say ‘Wagner,’ it’s because I thought of Wagner, and your saying ‘Britten’ counts as a hesitation. If you do that again, you have to make us both tea.”
He pretended to sulk. “Your go, then.”
“Tea,” she said.
“Mist,” came the reply.
She looked at him enquiringly. “Why mist?”
“Now you’re arguing.”
She defended herself. “No, I’m not. I’m just interested in why you said ‘mist.’ I’m not saying you can’t think of mist, I was just wondering why.”
“Because that’s what I see. I thought of a tea estate somewhere up in the hills, in Assam, maybe. And I saw women in saris picking tea leaves.”
“Fair enough.” But she was back in Glyndebourne. “I thought of Wagner,” she said, “but not any old Wagner. I thought of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.”
“Ah.” He looked at her cautiously. He had almost taken a job at Glyndebourne—a long time ago, before they married. That road not taken could have been the end of their relationship, and they both skirted around the subject.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It was not an unhappy memory.”
And then, years later, they had eventually made it to Glyndebourne together, leaving Charlie in the care of the housekeeper, Grace, who had moved into the house for the weekend. Charlie loved Grace, and she loved him in return, although something in her background—something that Isabel could not fathom—made her adopt a brisk, and slightly distant, manner with children. “You have to be firm,” she said. “If you aren’t, then they’ll take advantage. They watch us, you know. They look for the slightest excuse to avoid bedtime.”
They had flown down to Gatwick and then gone to a pub in the Sussex Downs that had rooms at the back for opera-goers and enthusiasts of real ale. The two groups, sitting in the pub, could not have more easily identifiable had they sported large labels. The beer enthusiasts were bearded and loud; the opera-goers, elegantly dressed and feeling out of place, spoke more quietly than they would do later amongst their own in the opera house bar.
It was Isabel’s first visit to Glyndebourne. She had been invited before, once when she was living in Cambridge and again after she had returned to Edinburgh, but had been unable to make it on either occasion. The second of these invitations had come from her niece, Cat, who had been given two tickets by one of her customers, and had offered to take Isabel with her. When Isabel had been unable to go, Cat had gone with a friend, and had complained about the opera, Tippett’s The Knot Garden, which she had not enjoyed.
Even Cat, who was musically hard to please, would have luxuriated in The Meistersinger, a rich and spectacular production. Isabel sat transfixed and had to be prodded by Jamie to return to reality at the interval, when they went off to have dinner in one of the opera house’s restaurants. And at the end, when they went out into the summer night, the sky still light enough for them to read the programme notes, Isabel did not want the evening to end. But Glyndebourne’s spell was slow to fade, and it was still upon them when they returned to the room they had booked in the pub, and closed the door and lay together on the lumpy double bed, still in their evening clothes, holding hands like two students newly in love, staring up at the ceiling with its uneven ancient beams of darkened oak. And she thought: How extraordinarily fortunate I am to be here, with him, when my life might have been so different if he had not come into it. She looked at him, and loosened his black bow-tie—a gesture that struck her, even as she performed it, as one of ownership. It was a curious feeling—one of . . . what? she wondered. Sexual anticipation? The feeling that you have when you realise that you will be sleeping that evening with the person you most want to sleep with in this world.
The game of Free Association might have continued had it not been for the sudden eruption of sound from a small monitor perched on the kitchen dresser.
“Magnus,” said Jamie.
“Bottles,” said Isabel. “Endless nappies. Sleepless nights.”
Jamie laughed. “I had stopped playing Free Association,” he said, pointing to the monitor.
“I know,” said Isabel, smiling. “But I couldn’t resist the associations.”
Magnus was their second child, who had arrived three months earlier, and who had just signalled that he had woken and was in need of attention. His nap had overlapped with Charlie’s; Charlie, although still sleeping, would shortly wake up too and make his presence felt.
“Do you remember what it was like?” said Jamie, as he rose to his feet.
“What what was like?”
“When we only had Charlie.”
Isabel rolled her eyes. “Life was so absurdly simple then.”
“Not that I’d change anything,” said Jamie hurriedly. “I love them both to bits.”
She knew that he did. He loved his two boys to bits, and she loved them that way too. She also loved Jamie to bits, and he had assured her that he loved her to bits. And if an inventory of affection were being made, she thought of so many things she could add to it: their house in Edinburgh, with its shady garden and elusive resident, Brother Fox; their city, with its fragile, spiky beauty, its mists and its skies and its romantic history; and her country too, Scotland, with all its curious quirks and its capacity to break the heart again and again.
“I’ll go and get him up,” said Jamie. “I’ll change him if he needs it.”
“I’ll entertain Charlie when he wakes,” said Isabel.
“How do people who have four or five children cope?” asked Jamie.
“The older ones look after their younger siblings,” said Isabel. “Look at old photographs. Fifty, sixty years ago. Look at pictures showing children in the street—the young ones are holding hands with their older brothers and sisters who are clearly baby-sitting. An eight-year-old would look after a one-year-old, and a six-year-old would look after a four-year-old.”
“Everybody looked after everybody else, I suppose.”
“They did,” agreed Isabel. “And did so without complaint.”
The monitor gave a further squawk. “Yet they didn’t even have monitors,” said Jamie.
Magnus’s arrival on the stage had been two weeks early, brought about, Jamie half seriously suggested, by Isabel having listened to a foot-tapping piece of music from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. She had closed her eyes as she listened and then opened them suddenly, wide-eyed at the stab of pain.
Her breath had been taken away from her, and it was a few moments before she could speak. “She’s coming,” she said. They had been calling the baby “she” although they had asked not to be told what sex it was. Yet they were convinced; it would be a daughter this time. They knew they should not make any assumptions, but somehow they felt certain.
Jamie had looked puzzled. “But it’s two weeks . . .”
She did not let him finish. “I need to phone the midwife. I need to let them know.”
He realised that she was serious. “I’ll take you to the Infirmary,” he said hurriedly. “Grace can look after Charlie. I’ll phone her right now.”
Isabel held up a hand. “Hold on,” she said. “They’ll tell me to wait. We’ll have hours.”
But she did not have much time. Things happened quickly, and she was in the labour ward within three hours, Magnus appearing twenty minutes later.
“A boy,” said the obstetrician, passing the glistening infant to a waiting nurse.
Jamie gasped. They had been so sure.
“A little boy,” muttered Isabel.
The nursing staff fussed around the baby before handing him to Isabel, loosely wrapped in an off-white cotton blanket. Swaddling clothes, thought Isabel. But this is loose, and is not proper swaddling.
Jamie cried, wiping at his tears with the back of his hand. They were tears that came with the cathartic welling up of more than one emotion: relief, sheer joy, love. These had all been his companions at the bedside, where he had sat through Isabel’s short labour; now they found release. A young nurse in training, attending her first birth, was similarly afflicted, struggling to force back her own tears but finding the battle too much. A senior nurse, standing at her side, whispered something in her ear and touched her briefly on the shoulder.
“Are you sure he’s a boy?” asked Isabel.
The obstetrician peeled off his gloves. “I’ve never been wrong on that one,” he said.
The trainee nurse giggled.
“You need to get some sleep,” said the senior nurse. She looked at Jamie. “Father too.”
“We thought it was going to be a girl,” said Jamie.
“Well, there you are,” said the nurse. “You were going to get one or the other, weren’t you?”
Isabel held the baby, her cheek pressed lightly against his tiny forehead. She saw that the baby’s blanket had letters printed on it, and they suddenly registered. RIP: what a tactless thing to put on a swaddling blanket, but then she noticed that the letters actually said RIE. The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. That was considerably better. The eye could so easily deceive—as when, a few months ago, she had misread a newspaper headline Pope hopes as Pope elopes, and had, for a moment, been both shocked and surprised. Of course now that a pope had broken with long historical practice and retired, it was always possible that a radical successor might feel that the time was ripe to elope.
Through the euphoria of the morphine they had given her right at the end, she felt a small niggle of disappointment. She had so wanted a girl, but she knew that she must not allow herself to think about it. She had a healthy, breathing baby, and that was all that mattered. Perhaps it had been a mistake to remain ignorant of the baby’s sex; the sonographers had found out when they performed the ultrasound scans but at her request had deliberately not shown her the screen. Perhaps she and Jamie should have asked, because that would have prevented their building up hopes. She had wanted a girl because there were things a mother could do with a girl. They would be friends, as mothers and daughters so often are, and would share their world with each other. This was a boy, and it would be like Charlie all over again; not that she regretted anything about him, but the demands of a boy were different.
Jamie held her hand. “Well done,” he whispered.
She squeezed his hand. “Twice as many things for you to do now that he’s a boy,” she said drowsily, not knowing exactly what she meant, or why she said it.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of A Distant View of Everything, the latest installment of Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling Isabel Dalhousie series
1. At the opening of the book, Isabel and her husband Jamie play a free association word game. What are some of the associations they make and how do they respond to one another’s associations? How does this reveal a deeper dialogue about perspective and the variety of individual experience?
2. Consider the book’s exploration of feminism and gender roles. When Grace challenges Jamie’s comments about a man’s ability to cook, Jamie tells her: “The world is not the same place it was twenty years ago. Sexism is a thing of the past” (p. 21). Do you agree with him? Why or why not? Is Jamie convinced of his own argument? Explain.
3. Jamie contemplates the advice Isabel gives him for dealing with people who frustrate or irritate him. What is it? Does Isabel seem to follow her own advice?
4. In bed with her husband, Isabel muses about “latitude and attitude” (p. 31). What is the relationship between the two according to Isabel? What is her response when Jamie asks “where religion comes in” (p. 32)?
5. When Bea confesses to Isabel that she believes she has made a mistake in setting up her dinner party guests, Isabel responds by saying that “unawareness of something is a perfectly good excuse” (p. 51). Do you agree that unawareness absolves Bea’s mistake or was it avoidable? Did Bea neglect some further obligation to the people she was setting up? Discuss.
6. Isabel believes that “letting up on social pressures is a serious mistake” (p. 56). Why do you think she believes this? Is her viewpoint surprising? Do you agree with her? Why or why not?
7. Who is the “Ridiculous Dutchman” and why does Isabel believe him to be ridiculous? How does Isabel deal with him? Is her reaction surprising? What does Isabel mean when she says that “uber anythings are ridiculous” (p. 72)?
8. Isabel tells Rob that “Maybe it’s worth doing something even if the effect is very tiny” (p. 86). Do you agree? Why does Isabel put so much work into her journal even though she believes that few people read it?
9. Explore the theme of confidentiality. When Isabel presents her argument to the attorney she hopes will assist her, she says that “[one doesn’t] have to keep quiet if some other value is threatened” (p. 90). What does she mean by this? Do you agree with this assertion? Do you believe that the attorney was justified in deciding to cooperate with Isabel?
10. What is “a necessary assumption” (p. 98) according to Isabel? Why does Isabel feel that we can’t be too skeptical about what other people confide in us? How does her belief in necessary assumptions affect her investigation?
11. What does Isabel believe “could fall victim to revisionism” (p. 129) based on changes in attitude over time? How does history influence our perspective of our surroundings?
12. Why does Isabel hesitate in telling Jamie that she met with Rob a second time? What complications does this cause? What is “the extraordinary coincidence” (p. 200) that allows Jamie to forgive Isabel?
13. Isabel believes that “the judgment of others was often more about them than the one they were judging” (p. 164)? What does she mean by this? Do you agree with her assessment?
14. What is moral proximity? Throughout the story, several characters ask Isabel why she gets involved in helping other people even though she could be putting herself in harm’s way. How might Isabel’s theory of moral proximity provide us with insight into why she continues to get involved in sleuthing?
15. Evaluate the theme of misunderstandings. What misunderstandings are presented in the book and what causes them? Could these misunderstandings have been avoided? If so, how? What does the book suggest about assumptions and the way that we form judgments about others?
16. Where does the title of the book come from? What does the book ultimately suggest about taking “a distant view” (p. 237) of things? What does Isabel mean when she says that a distant view of everything is "what we need"? Who is "we" in this statement?