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Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

May 22, 2009

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith
published by Pantheon April 21, 2009

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith is the latest in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Precious Ramotswe lives and works in her native Botswana. She is a traditionally built woman, though once in a while, people indelicately refer to her as “fat.” She also embraces traditional values, rooted in her love of her family and her country.

Mma. Ramotswe runs the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency with her assistant, Grace Makutsi. Together they solve mysteries for local citizens — their motto is “no case is too large or too small.”

In this novel, she takes on a well-known, affluent client, Leungo Molofololo, owner of a soccer team. He is determined to uncover the reason for his team’s long-running losing streak; he is certain someone on the team is being bribed to throw matches. Mma. Ramotswe also helps Mma. Makutsi resolve a problem threatening her relationship with her fiancee. And she enlists the help of her husband’s apprentice from the auto repair shop to try to resuscitate her beloved tiny white van.

For me, this series is like comfort food. My stepmother introduced me to it in 2003, when I was recuperating from childbirth — she felt I needed something light and delightful that I could gobble up like candy. I have thoroughly enjoyed every one, and this was no exception.

This is a far cry from a hard-core procedural thriller, and it’s not the kind of mystery that promises a dramatic climax. Often the solutions to clients’ problems lie in small things, and in intuition and common sense. It all stems from Mma. Ramostwe’s knowledge of her community, her belief in caring for others — “love always has plenty of work to do” — and her sense of what it is to be Botswanan. She helps her neighbors, cares for her husband and two foster children and offers wise counsel to her clients — though it’s not always what they want to hear. She also honors her beloved late father in her memory.

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built is entertaining and funny with thoroughly likeable characters. The novels in this series bring Botswana to life. I can see the flora and fauna in the landscape and feel the scorching heat. I also get a sense of local customs and culture. Above all, these books touch on the connections that link families, villages, and communities, and what it means to be human.

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