August 9, 2010
La's Orchestra Saves the World
La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith
2008 Pantheon Books
Finished on 7/9/10
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)
From the best-selling author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series comes a delightful and moving story that celebrates the healing powers of friendship and music.
It is 1939. Lavender—La to her friends—decides to flee London, not only to avoid German bombs but also to escape the memories of her shattered marriage. The peace and solitude of the small town she settles in are therapeutic...at least at first. As the war drags on, La is in need of some diversion and wants to boost the town's morale, so she organizes an amateur orchestra, drawing musicians from the village and the local RAF base. Among the strays she corrals is Feliks, a shy, proper Polish refugee who becomes her most prized recruit—and the object of feelings she thought she'd put away forever.
Does La's orchestra save the world? The people who come to hear it think so. But what will become of it after the war is over? And what will become of La herself? And of La's heart?
With his all-embracing empathy and gentle sense of humor, Alexander McCall Smith makes of La's life—and love—a tale to enjoy and cherish.
Meh. This had all the right ingredients. British. World War II. Renowned author. And yet it failed to wow me. I'm actually surprised I stuck it out for the entire book, but I kept hoping for a stellar finale. That said, I still plan to try something else of Smith's. Perhaps I should start with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I've owned the first three or four in the series for almost a decade!
Not much of a write-up, so I'll include some of my favorite passages.
Two men, who were brothers, went to Suffolk. One drove the car, an old Bristol drophead coupe in British racing green, while the other navigated, using an out-of-date linen-backed map. That the map was an old one did not matter too much: the roads they were following had been there for a long time and were clearly marked on their map—narrow lanes flanked by hedgerows following no logic other than ancient farm boundaries. The road signs—promising short distances of four miles, two miles, even half a mile—were made of heavy cast-iron, forged to last for generations of travellers. Some conscientious hand had kept them freshly painted, their black lettering sharp and clear against chalk-white backgrounds, pointing to villages with names that meant something a long time ago but which were now detached from the things to which they referred—the names of long-forgotten yeoman families, of mounds, of the crops they grew, of the wild flora of those parts. Garlic, cress, nettles, crosswort—all these featured in the place-names of the farms and villages that dotted the countryside—their comfortable names reminders of a gentle country that once existed in these parts, England. It still survived, of course, tenacious here and there, revealed in a glimpse of a languorous cricket match on a green, of a trout pool under willow branches, of a man in a flat cap digging up potatoes; a country that still existed but was being driven into redoubts such as this. The heart might ache for that England, thought one of the brothers; might ache for what we have lost.
La stood quite still. It was a room without life, like one of those Dutch interiors from which the people had disappeared, paintings of emptiness. She moved to a a window and looked out. This was her first glimpse of the garden, as it was concealed from the front and one could only guess at what lay behind the house. Somebody had cut the lawn—quite recently, it seemed, which would explain the smell of grass on the air outside, that sweet, promising scent. At the end of the lawn, a line of plane trees interspersed with chestnuts marched several hundred yards to a low stone wall, and beyond the trees were fields. It was a warm day, and there was a slight haze hanging above the horizon, a smudge of blue that could mislead one into thinking that there were hills. London was far away already; how quickly would one forget in a place like this she wondered.
Music was her refuge. There was madness abroad, an insanity of killing and cruelty that defied understanding—unless one took the view that this violence had always been there and had merely been masked by a veneer of civilisation. La thought that music disproved this. Reason, beauty, harmony: these were ultimately more real and powerful than any of the demons unleashed by dictators. But she feared that she was losing touch with these values—that her life in the country was simply too limited. She feared that she would forget if she did not go back.
She wondered what he had been before the war. That was the extraordinary thing about what the war achieved: it transformed lives, made heroes out of the mildest of people, out of the most timid, showed the bravery that must always have been there but merely lacked the occasion to manifest itself. It revealed other things, too: greed and selfishness disclosed their hand as people faced the prospect of hardship or hunger.
The farmer's wife disappeared down the lane, and La continued her walk. I have an orchestra, she thought. Other people have...well, they have what they have. I have an orchestra. It was a sobering thought, every bit as sobering as if one awoke one day to find oneself in charge of Convent Garden or La Scala. There were shoulders that bore those very responsibilities, of course, but they did not belong to a woman in her early thirties, who lived at the edge of a small village in Suffolk, and who each morning looked after hens.