Set in England at the onset of World War II, McCall Smith's new tale is a metaphor for the transformative power of music…La's Orchestra Saves the World is crafted with the author's usual wit, wisdom and grace. Like a pianist putting listeners at ease with the opening phrase, McCall Smith immediately makes us feel confident that this is a true and resonant tale.
The Washington Post
Surely only a writer like McCall Smith could make the war years feel like such a better, simpler time.
The New York Times
Set mainly during WWII in England, this quiet story about a woman who makes a new life for herself falls short of bestseller Smith's best work. After La Stone's husband leaves her for another woman in France, La retreats to a small cottage in Suffolk given to her by her mortified in-laws. The isolation and peacefulness suit La, who joins the Women's Land Army soon after the outbreak of war. When Feliks Dabrowski, an attractive Polish ex-pat, is assigned to the same farm where La is assisting with chores, La is attracted to him, despite her suspicions that Feliks hasn't been fully truthful about his past. La's idea to launch an amateur local orchestra to boost morale proves an unexpected success and helps give her purpose during the war's darkest days. While the understated prose appeals, La just isn't as interesting a creation as the author's two female sleuths, Precious Ramotswe (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency) and Isabel Dalhousie (The Sunday Philosophy Club). (Dec.)
After her husband leaves her for another woman, Lavendar, or La, leaves London for the Suffolk home generously provided by her in-laws. Soon after, war with Hitler is declared, and La begins gathering eggs for a farmer, organizes an orchestra of servicemen and townspeople, and finds work for Feliks, a Polish airman who can no longer fly. After Feliks is wrongly accused of theft, La shares her concern that he is actually German, and he isn't seen in the village again until La's VE Day concert. As a dedicated fan of Mma Ramotswe, this reader was disappointed with the scattered nature and bland characters of Smith's latest. La never truly comes alive, and the details of her life don't add up to a cohesive picture explaining her choices. Elements of interest, such as wartime life in the English villages, how music can inspire, rebuilding life after the loss of a marriage, or options for a single woman with means and opportunity, are only skimmed. VERDICT The author's name will make this a strong seller, but readers hoping for another Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will be left wanting. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/09.]—Stacey Hayman, Rocky River P.L., IL
Gravely charming stand-alone from the chronicler of Mma Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie (The Lost Art of Gratitude, 2009, etc.) sees an aggressively ordinary English widow through the dark days of World War II. Despite being warned by her tutor that too many women leave Cambridge with a husband instead of a career, that's exactly what Lavender Ferguson does. Even worse, the man who presses her to marry him, wine-merchant scion Richard Stone, soon presses on to greener pastures-i.e., France with another woman. Deeply sad but matter-of-fact about her failed marriage, La retreats to Sussex, where she is financially secure but very much at loose ends. After war is declared, she casts about for some way to help the war effort in this isolated rural area where she's never made the friends she rather naively expected. At length she volunteers to help arthritic chicken farmer Henry Madder feed the troops and the nation. While she's working as a freelance Land Girl, a conversation with Squadron-Leader and amateur trumpeter Tim Honey prompts La to take the lead in forming an amateur orchestra that can keep up the locals' spirits and perhaps even show Hitler a thing or two. Her plans put her into close contact with wounded Polish airman Feliks Dabrowski, a flutist who lacks both an eye and an instrument. La falls in love with Feliks. A thief relieves Henry of £800. Suspicion is confined to an uncomfortably small circle. As in Chekhov, such incidents constantly portend decisive developments that somehow never come to pass. Like Chekhov, Smith shows his heroine, who believes that "music could make a difference in the temper of the world," triumphing over the details of everyday life byimmersing herself in them so completely that she achieves an apotheosis in the reflection, "I have been a handmaiden."
From the Publisher
"A metaphor for the transformative power of music.... crafted with the author's usual wit, wisdom and grace."
"A big story about love, death, identity and music."
—The Lincoln Journal Star
"McCall Smith's characters are well-drawn and alive. . . . A satisfying work by a writer . . . who charms many readers."
“Beautifully precise and psychologically acute.”
—The Independent, London
"Delightful . . . McCall Smith once again creates unforgettable characters and a story that will resonate with readers across generations . . . A fresh and unforgettable story about the power of human kindness. Highly recommended."
—Booklist (starred review)
"The evocation of war-torn England, with its palpable mood of defiance, determination and survival, is beautifully caught . . . An excellent recreation of a woman of her time."
"Unlike anything else in McCall Smith's work."
"Alexander McCall Smith writes about the enduring, patient qualities of love . . . The novel pays heed to our national yearning for a story to chew on."
—The Times (London)
"A gentle and uplifting read."
—The Daily Mail
Read an Excerpt
Two men, who were brothers, went to Suffolk. One drove the car, an old Bristol drophead coupé 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.
They almost missed the turning to the village, so quickly did it come upon them. There were oak trees at the edge of a field and immediately beyond these, meandering off to the left, was the road leading to the place they wanted. The man with the map shouted out, “Whoa! Slow down,” and the driver reacted quickly, stamping on the brakes of the Bristol, bringing it to a halt with a faint smell of scorched rubber. They looked at the sign, which was a low one, almost obscured by the topmost leaves of nettles and clumps of cow parsley. It was the place.
It was a narrow road, barely wide enough for two vehicles. Here and there informal passing places had been established by local use—places where wheels had flattened the grass and pushed the hedgerows back a few inches. But you only needed these if there were other road-users, and there were none that Saturday afternoon. People were sleeping, or tending their gardens in the drowsy heat of summer, or perhaps just thinking.
“It’s very quiet, isn’t it?” remarked the driver when they stopped to check their bearings at the road end.
“That’s what I like about it,” said the other man. “This quietness. Do you remember that?”
“We would never have noticed it. We would have been too young.”
They drove on slowly to the edge of the village. The tower of a Norman church rose above a stand of alders. In some in explicable mood of Victorian architectural enthusiasm, a small stone bobble, rather like a large cannonball, had been added at each corner of the tower. These additions were too small to ruin the original proportions, too large to be ignored; Suffolk churches were used to such spoliation, although in the past it had been carried out in a harsh mood of Puritan iconoclasm rather than prettification. There was to be no idolatry here: Marian and other suspect imagery had been rooted out, gouged from the wood of pew-ends and reredoses, chipped from stone baptismal fonts; stained glass survived, as it did here, only because it would be too costly to replace with the clear glass of Puritanism.
Behind the church, the main street, a winding affair, was lined mostly by houses, joined to one another in the cheek-by-jowl democracy of a variegated terrace. Some of these were built of stone, flinted here and there in patterns— triangles, wavy lines; others, of wattle and daub, painted either in cream or in that soft pink which gives to parts of Suffolk its gentle glow. There were a couple of shops and an old pub where a blackboard proclaimed the weekend’s fare: hotpot, fish stew, toad-in-the-hole; the stubborn cuisine of England.
“That post office,” said the driver. “What’s happened to it?”
The navigator had folded the map and tucked it away in the leather pocket in the side of the passenger door. He looked at his brother, and he nodded.
“Just beyond the end of the village,” said the driver. “It’s on the right. Just before . . .”
His brother looked at him. “Just before Ingoldsby’s Farm. Remember?”
The other man thought. A name came back to him, dredged up from a part of his memory he did not know he had. “The Aggs,” he said. “Mrs. Agg.”
She had been waiting for them, they thought, because she opened the door immediately after they rang the bell. She smiled, and gestured for them to come in, with the warmth, the eagerness of one who gets few callers.
“I just remember this house,” the driver said, looking about him. “Not very well, but just. Because when we were boys,” and he looked at his brother, “when we were boys we lived here. Until I was twelve. But you forget.”
His brother nodded in agreement. “Yes. You know how things look different when you’re young. They look much bigger.”
She laughed. “Because at that age one is looking at things from down there. Looking up. I was taken to see the Houses of Parliament when I was a little girl. I remember thinking that the tower of Big Ben was quite the biggest thing I had ever seen in my life—and it might have been, I suppose. But when I went back much later on, it seemed so much smaller. Rather disappointing, in fact.”
She ushered them through the hall into a sanctum beyond, a drawing room into which French windows let copious amounts of light. Beyond these windows, an expanse of grass stretched out to a high yew hedge, a dark-green backdrop for the herb aceous beds lining the lawn. There was a hedge of lavender, too, grown woody through age.
“That was hers,” said the woman, pointing to the lavender hedge. “It needs cutting back, but I love it so much I can’t bring myself to do it.”
“La planted that?”
“I believe so,” said the woman.
“We played there,” said one of the brothers, looking out into the garden. “It’s odd to think that. But we played there. For hours and hours. Day after day.”
She left them and went to prepare tea. The brothers stood in front of the window.
“What I said about things looking bigger,” one said. “One might say the same about a person’s life, don’t you think? A life may look bigger when you’re a child, and then later on . . .”
“Narrower? Less impressive?”
“I think so.”
But the other thought that the opposite might be true, at least on occasion. “A friend told me about a teacher at school,” he said. “He was a very shy man. Timid. Ineffectual. And children mocked him—you know how quick they are to scent blood in the water. Then, later on, when he met him as an adult, he found out that this same teacher had been a well-known mountaineer and a difficult route had been named after him.”
“And La’s life?”
“I suspect that it was a very big one. A very big life led here . . .”
“In this out-of-the-way place.”
“Yes, in this sleepy little village.” He paused. “I suspect that our La was a real heroine.”
Their hostess had come back into the room, carrying a tray. She put it down on a table and gestured to the circle of chintzy sofa and chairs. She had heard the last remark, and agreed. “Yes. La was a heroine. Definitely a heroine.”
She poured the tea. “I assume that you know all about La. After all . . .” She hesitated. “But then she became ill, didn’t she, not so long after you all left this place. You can’t have been all that old when La died.”
From the Hardcover edition.