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Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel a web of mild desire, observation, constraint, delicacy and discreet disruption, writes Ken Barris

The Quiet Side of Passion ****
Alexander McCall Smith, Little Brown, R265

The Quiet Side of Passion is one of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels. Isabel is a mom, spouse, editor of a philosophical journal, and an incurable busybody. She is married to the gentlest, kindest, most humorous musician of a husband, Jamie, who loses his temper only once in the novel, and then very mildly.

He also turns down his chance to say “I told you so”. They share their house with their young children Magnus and Charlie, who are more seen than heard, which is a good thing because they are not convincing.

More to the point, Isabel’s life is shared with a cast of several: her self-centred niece Cat, the comically dour housekeeper Grace, the annoying Professor Lettuce, and certain strangers and newcomers who drive the story, insofar as there is one.

I went through a few transformations on reading this novel. Initially, enjoyment – there is much to enjoy in the form of elegant writing and lightly intelligent humour, agreeable and mostly well-drawn characters, and Isabel’s strange mixture of constant self-questioning, self-restraint, and impulsiveness.

Quiet Side is also that old-fashioned thing, a novel of manners. The characters are enmeshed in a network of restrictive social mores, defined (in an undefined way) by what one does and doesn’t do; it is a relief that Isabel sometimes does what one doesn’t. Though set in Edinburgh, it is really a portrait of English middle-class conventionality.

Later on, I began to think of it as Jane Austen Lite. A delicate web of mild desire, observation, constraint, delicacy and discreet disruption, unfortunately more quiet than passionate. Then with 76 pages to go, I began to wonder what it was about.

The nuts and bolts of the tale are provided by strangers and newcomers.

Claire Richardson is Isabel’s new editorial assistant. She is beautiful, but rather too strongly linked with Professor Lettuce, who is wont to intrude unwanted on Isabel’s editorial duties.

Antonia is the new Italian au pair. She is vivacious and full of enterprise, especially when it comes to men.

Isabel meets Patricia, a mother she encounters at young Charlie’s school, who both intrigues and annoys her. There are two threatening men who give Isabel a bad turn each, and there is Leo, Cat’s leonine boyfriend, who saves the day.

The plot revolves around Isabel’s interaction with these characters.

Claire turns out to be unsuitable, and soon so does Antonia, both for reasons of highly unsuitable love. They are dismissed without playing a major role in the narrative, though they take up a fair amount of space. Isabel learns that Patricia claims child maintenance from a man who might not be the father of her child. Being incurable, Isabel is driven to solve this mystery, which generates most of the fizz in the tale, though things go – well, not quite horribly wrong, just wrong.

Hence my puzzlement with 76 pages to go. The various threads were woven together (or almost together) deftly enough, and even at this point, I was confident that a satisfactory conclusion would be reached. And in fact it was – all mysteries were solved, threats vanquished, and a happy ending trotted out at the last minute. But I wasn’t sure that it added up to anything entirely coherent or worth saying, other than all’s well that ends well.

Despite this, I found the book entertaining and its understated humour diverting. For holiday reading or relief from our force-fed diet of political angst, The Quiet Side of Passion is highly recommended.

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