Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party - Alexander McCall Smith

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party is the twelfth book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. And if, like me, you have faithfully bought or borrowed each of the previous books, then you know the strength of the book is in its characters. The creator of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Ramotswe, associate detective, Mma Matutski, apprentice Charlie, master mechanic Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, and the pushy Mma Potokwani are all old friends. The book narrates more life experiences of these familiar faces, ensuring we participate in their happiness and share their surprise at unexpected twists of circumstances.
The plot is typically crowded with stories and events – the big wedding party is Mma Matutski’s, who as Mr J.L.B. Matekoni points out, not unkindly, is ‘at long last’ getting married.  Clovis Anderson’s The Principles of Private Detection, continues to guide Mma Ramotswe in her quest to find answers for her clients. Charlie is in trouble as usual but this time it really looks like he is in over his head. There is even mention of the hated Violet Sephotho who has broadened her ambitions – she is now attempting  to get herself elected as a Member of Parliament. And to add to the practical difficulties of organizing a wedding, solving mysteries and stopping Charlie from making more mistakes, there is an apparently supernatural element introduced with repeated sightings of Mma Ramotswe’s old white van – the same van that was given up as only good enough for the scrap heap.
This is also the mellowest book in the series - there is less sermonizing and fewer criticisms. Even the abrasive  Mma Matutski loses some of her rough edges thanks to her happiness in the soon-to-be wedding. Despite the loud altercation with Charlie at the beginning of the book which indicates a further worsening of the relationship, there are unexpected reconciliations all around.
At least part of it is engineered by Mma Ramotswe who gently reminds Charlie (and indirectly us) of his forgotten self-worth.
“She looked at him. For all his faults - and she had to admit they were manifold – he was a well-meaning young man. And much as he could be frustrating, he could also be amusing and generous and attractive.
‘Don’t change too much,’ she said gently. ‘We like you the way we are, Charlie.’
He stared at her incredulously, and she realised that he might not have heard many people say that. So she repeated herself: ‘We like you, Charlie, you just remember that.’
She looked down. He had clasped his hands together, his fingers interlaced. It was a gesture, she thought, of unequivocal pleasure—pleasure at hearing what all of us wanted to hear at least occasionally: that there was somebody who liked us, whatever our fault, and liked us sufficiently to say so.”
Near the end, the book has mutual apologies by Charlie and Mma Matutski and a hint that things could be smoother in the future. Yet another prickly problem is solved by a drastic change in the behavior of Mma Potokwani towards Mma Matutski. There is a newfound regard because a married woman is, in Mma Potokwani’s eyes, definitely worthy of respect. Typically in character, Mma Potokwani manages to wrangle an invitation to the wedding even when she was not on the original guest list and once she has got what she wanted all along, she uses her outstanding organizational skills to ensure that every aspect of the wedding party is memorable. A high note to end on - with so much more happiness in store for the characters.
This is not the best book in the series, certainly. And much of its richness would be lost if one is not familiar with the books that went before. But there is much to take away, the grace and elegance of Botswana shines through and a profound lesson on how simple kindness and understanding are sometimes all that is needed to make us better human beings.

1 comment:

  1. I still think the first book in the series was the best... sad and funny and surprising all at once. The books that followed..I have enjoyed,but it is Book I that I still return to the most. I have wished, on occasion, that MORE would happen in these books but, reading those words addressed to Charlie, perhaps it's a philosophy Smith chooses for the series too.