Wednesday, October 28, 2009

No.1 Ladies' Dectective Agency Review

I was disappointed by McCall Smith's Heavenly Date and Other Flirtations earlier in the year when it coquettishly suggested that its style and twists were similar to Dahl and it turned out to be a cock-tease.  But, I found The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency at a library booksale for 50 cents and I'd heard it was better so I decided to give it a try. It was better, but not by much.  The feeling I got the most while reading the book is that McCall Smith was writing what he thought his audience of middle-aged bored housewives would like rather than what he actually felt compelled to write.  It reminded me of Mitch Albom, but with some twisted form of feminism instead of Christianity. I say twisted because to me feminism is about equality and to McCall Smith it seems to be about man-bashing.  Interesting because he is, after all, a man.

To illustrate my point let me give you quick summaries of the first few chapters.   Needless to say it will contain spoilers.


Happy Bapetsi is a happy, hard-working woman.  She enters Mma "snap judgment" Ramotse's agency:
"She also had few worries--this was shown by the fact that there were no lines on her face, other than smile lines of course.  So it was man trouble, thought Mma Ramotse.  Some man has turned up and spoiled everything, destroying her happiness with his bad behavior."
Of course, Mma Ramotse is right and a man has shown up pretending to be her long-lost father to free load.  Mma Ramotse tricks him and chases him off.

From her father's POV.  He's a father-figure not a peer/love intrest so he's allowed to be a good, honest man.

Flashback: Mma Ramotse is a child in Sunday school.  A boy keeps unbuttoning his trousers in front of her.  She tells the Sunday School teacher who responds:
"Boys, men...They're all the same.  They think that this thing is something special and they're all so proud of it.  They do not know how ridiculous it is."
The Sunday school teacher, a woman, hits the boy over the head with a book and he learns his lesson.
Also, Mma Ramotse is very intelligent and good with numbers and wins an art competition and tells the truth even though it's difficult.

Flashback: Mma Ramotse is a teenager.  She falls for a handsome musician who she knows is bad news but she loves him so she marrys him anyway.  He turns out to be bad news.  He beats her for being pregnant and leaves her.

Are you starting to see a theme here?  Then the book picks up on solving cases in the present.  Her first case is a missing husband whom she assumes to be cheating but turns out to be dead.  Mma Ramotse presents the bad news to the wife and says that she must be sorry, her response?: "A bit, but I have lots to do"

The rest of the cases are as follows: cheating husband, over-protective father, husband steals car and good wife feels guilty, cheating husband, lazy man tries to trick boss, rich and powerful man dabbles in voodoo, greedy man endangers lives, and witch doctor kidnaps boy.

There are a few men who are painted in a positive light, but the ONLY woman painted in a negative light is the witch doctor's wife who is only bad through her connection to a man.  I think Desperate House Wives has more feminism in it for crying out loud.  At least they portray well-rounded characters who live in gray areas.  This black and white good and bad is not only boring it's poor character development.  There isn't a single character in there who isn't a stereotype including the supposed protagonist Mma Ramotse the fat, motherly, no-nonsense woman who uses her feminine intuition to get by.  Really?  McCall Smith, really?

This is a book that women are supposed to read to feel good about themselves.  It portrays men as the source of all women's trouble so they can blame their problems on others.  It contains descriptions of Botswana throughout so the reader can feel good about being multicultural.  All the cases are solved easily.  All the characters are clear-cut.  It's like McCall Smith is saying "Don't worry ladies, let me do all that pesky thinking for you."  The one thing I respected him for was that he had the balls to kill a child, but he even wussed out on that one in the end.

The thing I disliked most about this book? The fact that it made me feel compelled to defend men.  I am in no mood to be defending men right now.  How dare you make me point out the fact that not all men are lazy, cheating low life McCall Smith!  I need to be able to hate men right now and you're ruining it for me with heavy-handedness, curses!

Overall it's a fine book if you're not overly-fond of thinking and want something breezy to fuel your man-hating fire at your next girl's night out. It's competently written and I'm probably over-analyzing what is meant to be  a beach read, but that's just who I am.  It falls under a category I like to call "chewing gum for the mind" because it will keep you occupied without providing any nutritional value. I just don't like chewing gum.

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