Title: The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds (An Isabel Dalhousie Novel)
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Date completed: 24 March 2017
Goodreads rating: 2 stars
As a mother, wife, employer and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics – not to mention resident of Edinburgh, the birthplace of moral philosophy – Isabel Dalhousie is all too aware that to be human is to be responsible. So when a neighbour brings her a new and potentially dangerous puzzle to solve, once again Isabel feels she has no option but to shoulder the burden of other people’s difficulties.
An exquisite masterpiece painting has been stolen from the collection of Duncan Munrowe, old-fashioned philanthropist, father to two discontented children, and a very wealthy man. As Isabel enters into negotiations with the shadowy figures who have come in search of a ransom, a case where heroes and villains should be clearly defined turns murky: the list of those who desire the painting – or the money – lengthens, and hasty judgement must be avoided at all cost. Morals, it turns out, are like Scottish clouds: complex, changeable and tricky to get a firm grip on; they require a sharp observational eye, a philosophical mindset, and the habit of kindness, and fortunately for those around her Isabel Dalhousie is in possession of all three.
I promised myself that this year I would force myself to read from genres I don’t normally engage with. The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds was my first foray in years into the chick-lit, easy-read genre, and honestly, it was quite disappointing.
My mum sent me this book. In theory, it’s perfect for me: set in Edinburgh, intelligent female lead. It just unfortunately wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m sure it would be perfect for plenty of other people, but I just found it a bit…meh.
Isabel Dalhousie is the editor of a philosophical academic journal, living in Edinburgh with her handsome-and-muscular-but-never-works-out musician husband, and her “three and three-quarter year old” son Charlie, who is apparently a child-prodigy in the making. In her spare time, she reluctantly gets involved in other people’s problems as a sort of moral-sleuth, which is the premise of this series of novels. In this case, she’s roped in by her acquaintance Martha to help the very wealth Duncan Munrowe find his stolen, £3 million painting. It could have been a very interesting plot, filled with intrigue and mystery, but honestly I just found it irritating.
More specifically, I found Isabel irritating. She waxes lyrical about moral philosophy, and doing the right thing, and being a good person, but she’s awfully inconsistent, and quite childish. She happily gets involved digging about in Munrowe’s stolen painting/family dramas, and yet she won’t act as a character reference for her so-called friend, Eddie. She picks a rather odd fight with the nanny, Grace, over her decision to teach Charlie mathematics, but she never bothers to investigate the method Grace is using. If she had been a consistent character, I probably could have put up with her constant moral philosophising, but honestly I just found it irritating. I felt the same way about all the other characters. It was as though they were all just 2D stereotypes: the perfect husband, the perfect son, the headstrong nanny, the traumatised young man, the rich kid who hates the class system, the reserved, conservative wealthy land-owner. They didn’t really feel like characters, they didn’t have personalities that stood out to me. They were just, well, there.
Usually when I don’t like a book, I wish it had been shorter, but in this case I think the novel could have been improved by being a hundred pages longer. Without spoiling things, the main plot just sort of ends without really being resolved, which felt like a bit of a cop-out. More than that, all of the sub-plots (and there are quite a few) just finish mid-conflict without any real resolution or explanation. The entire time I was reading I felt like I was chasing different threads, only to find that they all stopped dead, mostly in frayed, unsatisfying trickle. At only 246 pages, McCall-Smith could definitely have added in some actual resolutions without stretching the length too dramatically.
If you’re in the mood for some easy-reading, the book equivalent to watching some trashy chick-flick that you can just switch your brain off for, you could read The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds quite easily in one sitting. Think a lazy Sunday curled up on the couch with a glass of wine, some snacks, and a crackling fire. I read it in three sittings, because I didn’t really enjoy it and therefore didn’t feel compelled to push myself to finish it. Then again, there are a lot of people who love these books, so maybe it just wasn’t my cup of tea. Maybe follow the advice of others on the Goodreads page and start somewhere else – one of the other Isabel Dalhousie novels or one of his other series, but not here. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I feel particularly driven to read any of his other work.