Minor Adjustment Beauty SalonThe Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon
by Alexander McCall Smith

“Oh, look, a new Mma Ramotswe book!” This series is a quirky favorite of mine and my dad’s, so a new one is always going to be a shared read-aloud. We’ve been puttering our way happily through this latest installment whenever I’ve had a free afternoon for the past couple of weeks. Both of us have concluded with a solid “thumbs-up”.

Recommending this series to friends who haven’t heard of it, we always have some puzzlement when we try to categorize it. Technically, it’s in the Mystery genre. But it’s not really what people expect from a traditional mystery. It’s about a private detective agency, but Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi bear no resemblance to Sam Spade or Kinsey Milhone. Their cases generally don’t involve gangsters or killers, but ordinary people with something troubling or disturbing them. Why is my business suddenly falling off? Can I trust this employee? Where is my wife/husband/child sneaking off to and why? Is this really my long-lost relative or an impostor?

The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency of Botswana approaches a new case by doing nothing for a few days. These two women drink tea, run errands, deal with daily life, and allow the official problem to simmer on a back burner. They discuss it between themselves, or think it over in private, rather than rushing right in with a Plan. Meanwhile, the ideas steep silently like tea. Eventually, they pay visits, ask questions, gather gossip, and then return to the office to drink more tea and ponder the new information. Occasionally, the ladies find themselves involved in wrangling and unpleasantness. Rarely, they even find themselves in some danger. But their aim is to bring peace of mind and correctness to the world, not to stir up trouble.

They are a gentle detective agency and they take a gentle approach to solving their clients’ problems. An ideal solution, as they conceive it, isn’t the arrest and punishment of a criminal, but the righting of a wrong situation. If someone has done something to cause harm, he must be brought to see this, and to make amends. If someone has been wrongly suspected, she must be cleared and given an apology. If a truth hidden has caused festering bitterness, it is better confessed and the air cleared. If a secret revealed would hurt people without helping anyone, it is better off forgotten. This is not police justice, but motherly justice, dispensed with love and a sense of humor.

In resolving the case of the nephew who wasn’t a nephew, Mma Makutsi remarks, “He is going through life not knowing who he really is.” To this, Mma Ramotswe reflects in return, “He thinks he knows, and surely that’s what counts. We need a story about ourselves, but does it really matter whether it’s a true one or it has been made up?” Considering this, Mma Makutsi asks, “You mean as long as we believe it ourselves?” These women would say that Facts, while an important start towards truth, are not sufficient to reveal the entire truth. The whole Truth may also include a dollop of mystery unresolved.

The distance between their work and their own lives is small. Much of each book is occupied with the problems of ordinary life. What should be done about Phuti’s annoying aunt? What about Mr. Matekoni’s shiftless apprentice Charlie? Or Mma Ramotswe’s abusive ex-husband? The same approach that the detectives bring to their clients’ problems is brought to their own. The same help they give to their clients is also given to each other. Reading these books, I see that all of life may be like a troubling mystery. Solving the many puzzles we meet each day may begin with something as simple as sitting down to drink tea with friends, letting the situation simmer awhile, searching for healing compromises rather than demanding  judgments and sentences.

A friend with whom we may simply sit and talk things over is shown to be beyond valuing. There’s a scene in this book in which Mma Ramotswe pays a visit to Mma Makutsi’s house after a heavy rain. The road is a sea of mud, so she must remove her shoes to wade through it,  as they are being sucked into the deep mud. When she reaches the porch with muddy feet, her friend fetches a basin of water and a towel, and settles in to wash her visitor’s feet.

Mma Ramotswe felt the warm embrace of the water and the slippery caress of the soap. The intimacy of the situation impressed itself upon her, that an old friend — and that was how she looked at Mma Makutsi — should do this for you was strangely moving. ‘Washing the feet of another’, she thought. She tried to remember if any other friend had done this for her. She thought not; and she had not done it for another. People were used to doing these things for children — washing them, changing them, tending to their physical needs — but one so easily forgot what it was to do this for another adult, or to have it done for you.”

The sense of appreciation for a gift is never far from the surface in these books. These are characters who are awake to blessings and ready to rejoice in all of them, no matter how small and ordinary. Mma Ramotswe’s little white van, Mma Makutsi’s blue suede shoes, Mma Potakwane’s fruitcake, a cup of tea, a shady tree, the smell of rain — little things that make a day pleasant — are worth celebrating. If even these small things are received with gratitude and awareness, then the truly great blessings — a loving spouse, children, good friends and neighbors, the beauty of the whole world — are ready to receive the attention they deserve.

In the end, what matters most is our community with each other. Humans are all one family at our most basic, but we too often forget to see this. As Mma Ramotswe says,

“At the end of the day, Mma Makutsi, aren’t we all the same? Aren’t we simply people? Aren’t we all distant cousins from long, long ago?”

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