“La’s Orchestra Saves the World” by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon, 294 pages, $23.95)
One of the many charms of Alexander McCall Smith’s fiction is its gentle nature: The author creates stories of everyday goodness, contentment and happiness. He teases out the joy found in small victories and solid friendships; he reveals the inner strengths and deeper emotions that can dwell in seemingly uncomplicated people.
He also keenly observes human nature, both how we interact with others and how we deal internally with our own personal situations. And his detailed landscapes and cityscapes evoke home — whether it’s Scotland, Botswana, metropolitan London or the English countryside, it is someone’s home, and we, the readers, are welcome guests.
With “La’s Orchestra Saves the World,” we are invited to England, specifically the countryside of Suffolk, during World War II, a time of blitzes and rationing, a time of sacrifice and fear — real, legitimate fear — that one’s own homeland was in mortal danger.
Cambridge-educated Lavender Stone, known as “La,” has fled London after the breakup of her marriage and the start of the war. La sets up alone in a cottage owned by her in-laws and is adjusting to country life when she is unexpectedly made a well-off widow before she could become a divorcee.
La dives into the war effort and ends up a volunteer on a small farm. Through her work there she meets Feliks, a refugee Polish airman. They strike up a friendship, one that La harbors wishes of taking further, but she never acts on or even gives voice to her desire. However, she does act to fill the other void in her life — music — by forming a small amateur orchestra.
Villagers, farmers and soldiers alike join the orchestra; the concerts are much anticipated and faithfully attended. The players may be a little flat, a bit off tempo, but they play for England, which more than anything is what people need.
“. . . (A)n orchestra would certainly help morale. That was what orchestras did. They played in the face of everything, as the orchestra on the Titanic did when it was sinking. It played. Well, we shall play while the country is fighting for its life. We shall play no matter what the enemy throws at us. They would prefer silence — so we shall answer them with music, or cacophony — it did not matter a great deal. As long as it was not silence.”
Such determination characterizes not only La but those around her, and while they all seem a bit stiff-upper-lippy at times, their resolve and sense of duty is genuine. La herself is a plucky heroine, but much of her potential complexity seems unexplored — for the most part she passively accepts her lot in life.
La’s nice and likable, but she’s less rounded out (figuratively and, in one case, literally) than Mma Ramotswe or Isabel Dalhousie, and there’s a distance between her and the reader that’s never quite overcome. It may not be fair to compare these characters, but for fans of McCall Smith’s series, this novel lacks some of the depth and warmth the others possess. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable book, a pleasant journey to another time and place.