|"La's Orchestra Saves the World" by Alexander McCall Smith (Anchor Books, division of Random House, Inc., 2010)|
Alexander McCall Smith is best known for his hilarious "The Number One Ladies Detective Agency." Set in Africa, the series launched him into literary fame in 1998. This prolific and witty author, also a medical ethics scholar and teacher, has written dozens of books since, many of them part of a series. This delightful and uplifting one stands alone.
La (for Lavender) is a gentle, refined young Englishwoman who suffers a heartbreak that compels her to go to a new place and invent a life for herself that will allow her to pick up the pieces and carry on. The new place is a rural village in Suffolk, in contrast to her previous life in London. World War II is underway and London is soon to be the target of relentless bombing raids.
La joins the Woman's Land Army, which assigns women to help at local farms. Henry Madder, an elderly, arthritic farmer, needs help with his hens. La settles into a comfortable routine, bicycling a few miles to Madder's Farm each day to collect eggs and clean the hen houses. Meantime, the war draws closer.
La turns to music as a refuge, first finding an old flute she had not played since Cambridge, then discovering a book of sheet music in a used bookshop. She becomes acquainted with a British officer from the RAF base. He tells her about a Polish airman who was treated for an injury and stays on at the base because there's nowhere else for him to go. La's farmer needs more help and Feliks, the Pole, an attractive, enigmatic man, signs on as his hired help. He, too, plays the flute, and La decides to start an orchestra, to play bravely in the face of danger and to keep people's spirits up.
The book's title, of course, is an exaggeration. But La's grassroots orchestra, consisting of out-of-practice musicians and reclaimed instruments, shows the stolid determination of the British to do what they can against the deadly attack from Germany.
With the help of Tim, the officer from the base, La collects instruments from nearby townspeople, some of whom volunteer to play. Eight players come from the base. The instruments are rusty and the players more so, and La has no experience conducting, but somehow it all comes together, and a dedicated volunteer orchestra is born.
La's attraction to Feliks, who helps in the garden at her house, is disturbing. Some things he says could suggest that he's a Nazi. There are serious misgivings about friends and neighbors, and La, discouraged about the progress of the war, decides to give up her orchestra. She explains to Tim, "We can't just go on to doing the same old thing, can we?"
Tim disagrees: "We have to do the same old thing. Your orchestra stands for everything we are doing. We meet once a month and play. It shows to anybody that we are not giving up. None of us can give up. If we do, everything's lost … your orchestra means a lot to those who play in it, townspeople, airmen from the base. You are one of the things that keep us all going, don't you see?"
So La's orchestra, a metaphor for the power of music and the stalwartness of the British people, continues. The war's end includes a peace concert by the orchestra. The conclusion of this book, while drawn out, is satisfactory. The ending, with unseen twists, is a happy one.