1. Isabel again notices Cats “inability to tell good men from bad” [p. 14] when Cat describes her friend Kirstys fiancé, Salvatore, who wont disclose what he does for a living. Is Isabel correct about Cats weakness for inappropriate men? If she is, is it likely that Cat will ever resume her relationship with Jamie?
2. “You could never be me,” says Isabel to Cat. “And I could never be you. We never know enough about another person to be him or her. We think we do, but we can never be sure” [p. 12]. What are the implications of this statement on Isabels efforts to solve the mystery that Ians heart transplant presents?
3. Isabel is forty-two. Jamie tells Isabel that Louise, the married woman he is seeing, “is about your age, actually” [p. 48]. Cat tells Isabel that shes not interested in Tomasso because of his age, which she says is “About your age. . . . Early forties” [p. 106]. Why is Isabels age mentioned so often? Is it because she thinks her chances for love are diminishing as time passes? Are her chances for love diminishing because of her age? Does Isabel have an exaggerated sense of her age?
4. How likely does a love affair between Jamie and Isabel seem? If Jamie is in his late twenties, is it likely that he would be romantically interested in Isabel, whom he calls “perhaps my closest friend” [p. 47]? Do you assume that this romance will be developed in upcoming volumes?
5. The question Isabel raises on page 54, of whether our possessions in some sense remain ours, is very much related to the feelings and visions Ian experiences after his heart transplant. Ian believes that he may be experiencing the memories of the man whose heart he received. What do you think of the idea that memory might exist at the cellular level [pp. 89-90, 92-93]? What is most interesting about the situation that Ian describes?
6. What is unusual about the way Isabels mind works? What, for instance, does she mean by saying, “There was a lot that one might say about chocolate, if one thought about it” [p. 67]? Does Isabel think like a writer of fiction, embroidering stories about people and their motivations? In what ways is fiction like moral philosophy?
7. Ian says hes heard that Isabel has a “reputation for discreetly looking into things,” which she herself rephrases as “indecent curiosity. Nosiness, even” [p. 83]. Given Jamies and Cats disapproval of Isabels curiosity, is her need to get involved in such matters as Ians “indecent,” or the opposite?
8. What questions does the plot raise about the ethics of organ transplants and the rights of families and recipients to know about the person with whom they are engaged in this intimate form of charity? Why does Ian feel the need for contact with the family of his donor?
9. Isabel gets into awkward trouble when she assumes too readily that she has discovered the identity of Ians donor. How do you view her split-second decision to describe herself as a medium when she meets with the mother of Rory Macleod [pp. 125-31]? Does she make a serious moral error in this situation? Do you agree with her views on “moral proximity,” as she defines it on page 122?
10. Grace and Isabel, housekeeper and employer, have a conversation regarding Isabels romantic prospects. Grace tells Isabel, “Youre kind. Men like you. . . . They love talking to you,” and Isabel replies, “Men dont like women who think too much. They want to do the thinking” [p. 170]. How true is this observation? Is Isabel too intelligent to be thought of as desirable by the majority of men?
11. Where, and in what kinds of situations, are the moments of comedy in the story? Does the comedy result from a farcical mishap, or a wry observation, or the way people speak to each other? How would you describe McCall Smiths sense of humor?
12. Are Grace and Isabel friends, despite their differences in social class and education? What kind of a person is Grace, and what does she bring to Isabels life? Is it surprising that a pragmatist like Grace would believe in spiritualism?
13. Isabel isnt perfect, and she sometimes makes social errors in a moment of impulse. When she recommends kindness and honesty to Tomasso in the restaurant, she is reacting to her own uncertainty about Tomasso and his motives [p. 178]. Is he being dishonest with her and with Cat? Why is Isabel attracted to Tomasso? What are the subtle things that happen in Isabels mind during their conversation in the restaurant [pp. 176-84]?
14. Ian and Isabel have a conversation about Scottish poets in which Ian reflects on William Dunbars phrase “taken out of the country.”* How does McCall Smiths prose style, as well as Isabels musings, reflect the importance of "clear good language"[p. 197]?
*For complete text of Dunbars poem, “Lament for the Mahers,” see
15. Jamie tells Isabel that he wont take the job with the London Symphony because of Cat, and Isabel angers him by saying, “She wont come back to you, Jamie. You cant spend your life hoping for something that is never going to happen” [p. 225]. Is she right or wrong to say this? Does it seem that Jamie needs to understand what Isabel is trying to tell him?
16. What traits make Isabel a likeable character? What does her character tell readers about the ways in which ethical thinking can enter into the circumstances of everyday life?
17. Why is Brother Fox in the novel [pp. 100, 216-17, 261]? What does he represent? What is the effect of the novels ending?