The Comfort of Saturdays by Alexander McCall Smith: Book Review

I do like the Isabel Dalhousie books and this one The Comfort of Saturdays is so good.  What I find so fascinating about the series is that whilst not a lot actually happens, a lot goes on in Isabel’s head. Isabel is an ‘intermeddler’ … She imagined the dictionary definition:one who meddles in affairs that are no business of hers.(page 153) She can’t resist appeals for help and tries to do the right thing.

In The Comfort for Saturdays her main concern apart from her relationship with her family, Jamie, the father of her son, Charlie, and her niece, Cat, is trying to discover the truth behind Dr Thompson’s disgrace on resigning from all medical work. He was an infectious diseases specialist carrying out a drugs trial on a new antibiotic, which was going well until two patients developed serious side effects and then another patient died. He was accused of falsifying figures and producing a misleading report. His wife asks Isabel to clear his name as she believes he is innocent. Dr Thomas has sunk into a deep depression, too ashamed to go out of his flat.

Isabel is also struggling with the dilemma of whether to include a paper by Professor Dove in the Review of Applied Ethics, which she both owns and edits. Earlier she had dismissed Dove from the editorial board and on the one hand she doesn’t want to appear petty in rejecting his paper, which she doesn’t think meets the Review’s standards and on the other, she needs to show that Dove is treated equally with other people who submit papers.

Issues that interested me as I read the book included thoughts on the existence of otherwise of God and Hell, agnosticism, the possibility of ‘killing’ God, the existence of a merciful creator, and justice:

She had never been able to understand how anybody could reconcile the existence of Hell with that of a merciful creator; he simply would not have embarked on us in the first place to send us to some Hieronymous Bosch-like torture chamber or its more modern equivalent (a place of constant piped music, perhaps). Hell might be an airport, she thought lit with neon and insincere smiles. No, she told herself; she was prepared to accept the possible existence of a creator, in the same way she was prepared to accept curved space, but he or she would not invent Hell, whatever twists and turns on the subject of free will and choice were resorted to by the concepts apologists. (page 70)

She goes on to recognise, however, that although people relish the idea of eternal justice we should be careful about abolishing Hell, and also that we should accept that because the wicked more often than not get away with their wickedness and much as we would like a perfect world ruled by perfect justice, this is not the way it will ever be.

Other themes that arise are jealousy, guilt, and the nature of freedom – between people in a relationship – trust, values, and money. Yet all this thinking doesn’t make the book tedious, far from it, because McCall Smith writes in such an engaging style, mixing in events and descriptions of the location along with what I think of as Isabel’s meditations that keeps me turning the pages to find out not only what will happen next, but also what Isabel thinks about it.

One more quotation that made me smile is this:

There were things, she thought, which were probably true, but which we simply should not always acknowledge as true; novels, for example – always false, elaborately constructed deceptions, but we believed them to be true while we were reading them; we had to, as otherwise there was no point. One would read, and all the time as one read, one would say, mentally, He didn’t really. (page 42)

I do believe The Comfort of Saturdays is true – even though I know it’s all a figment of McCall Smith’s imagination.

The title? Well, Isabel liked Saturdays, but not quite so much, she thought if she had to work. And yet even a working Saturday seemed subtly different from a weekday … (page 175) Saturday was her favourite day.

3 thoughts on “The Comfort of Saturdays by Alexander McCall Smith: Book Review”

  1. Margaret – Thanks for this fine review. It’s interesting how McCall Smith can weave in those larger issues through a story, isn’t it? He does that in his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, too.

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  2. In the library yesterday I almost picked up one of McCall Smith’s books since I’ve never read one and had heard so much about them. Then I spotted a new Nevada Barr and picked that up instead. Next time, though, I’ll get McCall Smith. Great review!

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