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What feminists have in mind for men

April 1, 2006

The latest in Alexander McCall Smith's series of books on the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, operating from modest premises in Gabarone, capital of Botswana, is out. Blue Shoes and Happiness is a triumphant return to form after the slightly disappointing In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, which had me regretfully wondering if McCall Smith was not perhaps getting a tiny bit tired of his most famous creation (he has other projects underway, after all).

What Feminists have in Mind for Men is the title of Chapter Four. Mma Makutsi, the energetic assistant detective — recently promoted from secretary — has at last found a man worthy of her: Mr Phuti Radiphuti, who runs the local furniture store. They are engaged. But Phuti is worried about feminism, having heard some of it articulated on the radio, and has suffered from a dream in which an angry feminist armed with a broom sweeps him aside from the life he wanted to lead with Mma Makutsi.

Overcoming his contitutional shyness and peripatetic stutter, he summoned the courage to ask his betrothed whether she was a feminist. "Of course I am," Mma Makutsi replied. "These days most ladies are feminists. Did you not know that?"

Phuti Radiphuti was unable to answer. He opened his mouth to speak, but words, which had recently been so forthcoming, seemed to have deserted him. It was an old, familiar feeling for him; a struggle to articulate the thoughts that were in his mind through a voice that would not come, or came in fits and starts. He had imagined a future of tenderness and mutual cherishing; now it seemed to him that he would  face stridency and conflict. He would be swept aside, as he had been swept aside in that dream; but there would be no waking up this time.

He looked at Mma Makutsi. How could he, who was so cautious, have been so wrong about somebody? It was typical of his luck; he had never been noticed by women — it would never be given to him to be looked up to; rather, he would be the target of criticism and upbraiding, for that is what he imagined feminists did to men. They put them in their place; they emasculated them; they derided them. All of this now lay ahead of Phuti Radiphuti as he stared glumly at his fiancee and then down again at his plate, where the last scraps of food, a mess of potage in a sense, lay cooling and untouched.

Follows a wrenching relationship moment or two for both Mma Makutsi and her fiance. Happily they are resolved, in a not-at-all anti-feminist way, with the help of wise counsel from the agency's founder and principal detective, Mma Ramotswe, a 'traditionally built' African lady who has just begun to have doubts about her girth, and is toying with the idea of going on a diet.

These are wonderful books. If you haven't yet encountered Precious Ramotswe, one of modern fiction's warmest and most memorable characters, you should rush out and buy the whole series.

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