La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith (Novel, 2008).
This stand alone novel is a gentle, slightly rambling but entertaining, quietly moving and affectionate book set mostly in a small town in rural England in the middle years of the 20th century. Lavender likes the flower but not her name, so she has everybody call her La when she escapes a failed marriage to a wealthy but faithless husband and lands in a small and insular town in rural England. There are many settling in issues until World War Two rudely interrupts her healing process. This brings ever-tightening wartime shortages, a new RAF airbase springs up nearby and puts everybody on edge.
Doing her part in the Women’s Land Army (which took over many agricultural jobs for men away fighting), she tends chickens for a handicapped old farmer. She befriends a Royal Air Force officer and, through him, gets a farm job for Feliks (a former Polish fighter pilot, unable to continue combat due to war wounds). It’s clear to readers that La and Feliks are meant to be a couple, but he has secrets and pervasive wartime paranoa (even La wonders: could he be a spy?) combines with each one’s natural hesitancy keep things from following their natural course.
A great music lover, La forms an orchestra in a quest to raise everyone’s morale–with town’s folk, airbase crew and Feliks all involved. They’re no great musicians. Yet it helps all concerned get through the years of struggle, proving the great power of music to bond different people together and help them survive periods of stressful upheaval. Unfortunately, circumstances carry Feliks away from the area.
The war ends at last, there’s a Victory Concert and the band disbands. Years pass till the Cuban Missile Crisis brings the world to the verge of nuclear war. Aging La responds with a reunion Peace Concert of the orchestra. This brings surviving townspeople, former airmen and ultimately the now-middle aged Feliks and La together one last time. The concert ends even as the crisis ends without bloodshed.
Has her orchestra truly saved the world through some mystical means? Well, that of course is overstating things. But it has again helped the village’s ordinary people focus on something positive and even beautiful in their little corner of the world. And Feliks is back, a widower with two young sons. Are they going to stay? Will Feliks and La finally be a couple?
We already know the answer, as all but the book’s first chapter has been an extended flashback. In that opening, today’s now-middle-aged sons pay a visit to the odd little village and the odd little house that became their childhood home (along with their father and beloved stepmother, now both long dead).
The author is of course better known for several series he’s written (I’m a big fan of his Number 1 Ladies’ Detective stories). But while this is a very different setting, the gentleness and knowing regard for people’s hopes, dreams and regrets are all on full display here. I enjoyed the book, most certainly. There’s one very minor point that sort of tripped me up, however.
La’s repeated (and always frustrated) attempts to win the respect of her former university mentor is important in developing her character. But why has the author saddled this stiff, self-important and dismissive person with the same very distinctive name as famed musician Leontyne Price (changing only one vowel in the woman’s unusual given name)? Has McCall Smith got a beef with the real-life singer? I don’t know, but can’t see it as a mere coinicidence. Using that name for the closest thing to a recurrent villain in the novel (aside from the impersonal troubles caused by Wars, both Cold and Hot) produced puzzled moments that briefly took me out of the story.
Irregardless, this is overall a fine little tale of mostly goodness and humane understanding.