Isabel Dalhousie is one of Edinburgh's most generous (but discreet) philanthropists - but should she be more charitable? She wonders, sometimes, if she is too judgmental about her niece's amorous exploits, too sharp about her housekeeper's spiritual beliefs, too ready to bristle in battle against her enemies.
As the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, she doesn't, of course, allow herself actual enemies, but she does feel enmity - especially towards two academics who have just arrived in the city. Isabel feels they're a highly destabilizing influence; little tremors in the volcanic rock upon which an Enlightened Edinburgh perches. Equally troubling is the situation of the little boy who is convinced he had a previous life. When Isabel is called upon to help, she finds herself questioning her views on reincarnation. And the nature of grief. And - crucially - the positioning of lighthouses.
The only questions Isabel doesn't have to address concern her personal life. With her young son and devoted husband her home life is blissfully content. Which is the best possible launching pad for the next issue of the Review - the Happiness issue. As Isabel is beginning to appreciate, happiness, for most people, is not quite what it seems . . .
No writer makes the philosophical life as inviting and cozy as Smith does in his episodic novels featuring Isabel Dalhousie. In her native Edinburgh, Isabel fills many roles: editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, mother of Charlie, partner of Jamie, and solver of mysteries. When people in Isabel's circle have troubles, they come to her ("I am a recipient of unusual confidences," she says to herself). In this 10th installment (after 2012's The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds), six-year-old Harry is "convinced that he's had another life," complete with another family and a house with a red door near a lighthouse. Isabel looks into this odd situation with her usual efficiency, ready intelligence, and highly sympathetic nature. Smith adds a modicum of narrative energy with a subplot about a minor academic feud, but plot isn't the point. The real substance of this charming series lies in Isabel's thoughtful observations and the interactions among a large cast of characters.