Comfortable little novellas are Alexander McCall Smith’s stock in trade. He has hit the bestseller list with almost everything he’s ever written. Most famous for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and his insightful and bemusing Edinburgh stories about 44 Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie, this most recent work is a stand-alone title taking place in a new era and setting.
LA’S ORCHESTRA SAVES THE WORLD takes place in East Anglia, England, shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Lavender (aka La) Stone, a recent and promising music major graduate of Cambridge, lives in London with her new husband, Richard, whose father owns a French winery. Unfortunately, their marriage falls apart when he runs off to France with another woman, and Richard’s parents, humiliated by his mistreatment of La, vow to make certain that she is well cared for by giving her their country house in a tiny rural Suffolk village.
As the war intensifies, rumors are rampant of the pending German invasion, so La is resigned to living a two-hour drive far from her native London. She misses her circle of friends and the theater scene, but resigns herself to fixing up the old farmhouse and planting a garden. Adjusting to the country life and making new friends with the insular residents of the surrounding farms nearly drives her to moving back to London despite the growing threat of war.
When the bombs start to fall in London and the number of sorties of British and German war planes crossing the channel grows, La is no longer able to seclude herself in her safe haven. She decides to throw herself into the war effort by planting a victory garden and enlisting in the volunteer Women’s Land Army as a farmhand, the only job suitable for rural women. La finds herself helping an arthritic chicken farmer by cleaning the coops and gathering eggs.
A nearby Royal Air Force base brings hundreds of airmen into the area. Morale is low due to high casualties and fierce fighting with the Nazis early in the war, persuading La to form an orchestra among the servicemen and local residents in order to raise their spirits. Civilians from nearby Bury soon join in, and a ragtag orchestra of musicians of vastly different levels of ability is formed.
Joining the war effort is a handsome young Polish officer, a war refugee staying at the British base. He goes to work at a farm near La, where he learns of the orchestra. His inclusion in the story sparks a subplot in which La suspects that everything is not quite above board with the Polish airman, a suspicion that is shared by her neighbors. Even though she is attracted to him, she has reason to believe that he may not be who seems to be. He is eventually taken away from the area by the authorities, and the situation is resolved, but it doesn’t turn out to be as exciting a plot twist as it might have been.
La’s situation points up the lack of utilizing capable women in a time of war, and in a mild way even the ingrown prejudices against foreigners that existed in the 1930s. The book does not lend itself to serialization and will no doubt remain a stand-alone novella, but it is a novella that will appeal to fans of the Isabel Dalhousie books. They will recognize and appreciate the pace and style as the story remains a mellow slice of life in a historical era.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 5, 2011