Life During Wartime, Made Bearable By Music You might think of Alexander McCall Smith's new novel, La's Orchestra Saves the World, as a literary tea biscuit: sweet and easily digestible, says reviewer Heller McAlpin. The WWII-era story, set in rural England, tells the story of a new McCall Smith heroine, Lavender Stone.


Book Reviews

Life During Wartime, Made Bearable By Music

'La's Orchestra' Cover
La's Orchestra Saves the World
By Alexander McCall Smith
Hardcover, 304 pages
List price: $23.95

Read An Excerpt

There ought to be a genre called tea biscuit fiction — serving up the easily digestible comfort food of literature. And if there were, Alexander McCall Smith could fill its decorative tins with delectable goodies almost singlehandedly. At this point, the prolific retired law professor is juggling so many series — the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, the Isabel Dalhousie Series, The Portuguese Irregular Verbs Series, and the 44 Scotland Street Series — it's a wonder he keeps them all straight.

La's Orchestra Saves the World is a self-contained stand-alone, McCall Smith's only novel (at least, to date) about Lavender Stone — La for short, like the musical note, because, as a neighbor remarks, Lav just wouldn't do for a nickname, would it? McCall Smith uses a contrived setup to frame La's story, but once he gets into it, everything goes down smoothly.

Like his private eye from Botswana, Precious Ramotswe, and his moral philosopher from Edinburgh, Isabel Dalhousie, McCall Smith's new, English heroine is an intelligent, independent woman. Even in her younger years, her primness makes her seem prematurely middle-aged. And, like so many of his characters and McCall Smith himself, she believes fervently in "the power of music. Absurdly, irrationally, she believed that music could make a difference to the temper of the world."

Briefly married after studying at Cambridge University, La spends much of her life alone, though not by choice. It's a quiet, largely uneventful existence, but the point — and this author usually has an instructive lesson or two to convey — is that she still manages to make something worthwhile of it.

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. He was born in Zimbabwe. Chris Watt hide caption

toggle caption
Chris Watt

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. He was born in Zimbabwe.

Chris Watt

La retreats from her failed marriage and World War II London to the Sussex cottage her in-laws bequeath to her. (Money and real estate are rarely a problem in these cozy tales.) She patriotically joins the Women's Land Army, doing volunteer work tending an arthritic farmer's hens. More important, she starts an amateur orchestra made up of locals and troops stationed nearby, because, "this world was a world of suffering; music helped make that suffering bearable."

One of the flutists, Feliks Dabrowski, is a Polish airman who has been shot down and assigned to help out on the same farm as La. Although she's attracted to him, their relationship remains stiff because she's gun-shy after her failed marriage. Complicating matters, she begins to suspect that Feliks might actually be German. This raises issues about where her duties lie, which is precisely the sort of moral dilemma in which McCall Smith, an ethicist, revels.

So La's Orchestra is about the evil of war and the solace of music, about mistrust and kindness and finding love in unlikely places. Little will surprise you, but you don't read McCall Smith for life-altering apercus: You read him for the comforting reassurance that even amid all the nastiness in the world, there are still civilized pockets of people for whom culture, morality and rationality matter profoundly.

Excerpt: 'La's Orchestra Saves The World'

'Orchestra' Cover
La's Orchestra Saves the World
By Alexander McCall Smith
Hardcover, 304 pages
List price: $23.95


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.

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 inexplicable 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 herbaceous 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."

Excerpted from La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith. Copyright 2009 by Alexander McCall Smith. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Buy Featured Book

La's Orchestra Saves the World
Alexander McCall Smith

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?