Alexander McCall Smith’s hugely popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels are routinely classified as mysteries, yet their strength lies not in the conventions of crime fiction, but rather in their astute depiction of human nature at its best and worst. Those same subtle perceptions underpin McCall Smith’s delightful new stand-alone novel, La’s Orchestra Saves the World. Set in England before and during the Second World War, this tender, understated story explores perennial questions of personal loyalties and public responsibilities during critical times.

In some ways, La (which is short for “Lavender”) is the product of her age, even if she is more independent-minded than the average British woman born circa 1911. La studies literature at Cambridge University, for instance, but then disappoints her proto-feminist tutor, Dr. Price, by marrying soon after graduation. Her charming husband, Richard Stone, turns out to be a cad, running off to France to be with his mistress. Left with few options, La is given the use of a house in the country by her affluent in-laws, and she moves to Suffolk bent on starting afresh. But country life, for all its charms, proves less than stimulating for an intelligent, suddenly single young woman who shares little with her parochial neighbors.
When Richard suddenly dies in a bizarre accident, La finds herself—at age 28—labeled a widow. Her prospects are meager, but salvation of an unexpected sort comes with the war. Intent on doing her bit, La volunteers to help a local farmer tend his chickens, and she finds the work oddly satisfying. She also meets an RAF officer, Tim Honey, whose friendship will change La’s life in two wholly unexpected ways. He introduces her to war refugee Feliks Dabrowski, a Polish pilot who, having lost the vision in one eye, can no longer fly. La secures work for Feliks as a handyman on the farm and enjoys his daily proximity. Though she soon recognizes she is falling in love with him, she has no idea if the shy, somewhat brooding Pole shares her feelings.

Tim also transforms La’s life when he suggests she start a community orchestra comprised of amateur musicians from the village, its environs and the nearby air base. Rising to the challenge, La attempts to recruit Feliks to join the ensemble, but he protests that he has no flute to play. When La buys him one, he is both gratified and embarrassed by her generous gesture, which nonetheless cements their friendship. Despite her growing attraction to Feliks, La begins to notice some inconsistencies in his story, and she starts to think the unthinkable: that he is not Polish at all, but a German spy. The intrigue surrounding this real or imagined betrayal, along with a number of petty crimes that disturb La’s carefully ordered life, provide the dramatic tension at the heart of the novel. Torn between her devotion to Feliks and her patriotic duty, La struggles with whether to share her concerns with Tim. As it happens, things are not as they seem, and La’s personal destiny, tied as it is to the broader sweep of history, remains largely outside her control.

With La’s Orchestra Saves the World, McCall Smith tells a deceptively quiet story about what might on the surface seem a life of disappointment—a story that may remind readers of similar portraits of lonely women’s lives by William Trevor, Brian Moore or Bernice Rubens. But McCall Smith, as is his wont, puts a much less bleak spin on La’s experience than these other writers might have. La’s life, we are told in a prologue to the story, is “a very big life.” In her unassuming way, she has a lasting effect on many others at a time when the world has gone mad. This notion that each individual life, no matter how seemingly small, has value and influence is a message that literature has taught us before, but never more convincingly than McCall Smith does here. La, with or without her slightly out-of-tune orchestra, saves her circumscribed world with little fanfare, one human gesture at a time.

Robert Weibezahl grew up in a suburb of New York City not unlike Round Hill.

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