During the holiday weekend, I managed to stave off the food coma long enough to read a few upcoming December releases. At the top of the short stack was Alexander McCall Smith's new novel, La's Orchestra Saves the World (available December 8). I must confess that I'm a bit of a late-comer to McCall Smith's impressive bibliography of more than 50 works. I got hooked on the beloved Scottish author's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series last spring while prepping for our podcast interview, and more recently was intrigued when I heard about La's Orchestra--a stand-alone novel (rare for McCall Smith) that's set in the small town of Suffolk in the English countryside during the Second World War. Fans of McCall Smith's female sleuths Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie will find just a few mysteries punctuating the story line. The book is mainly concerned with the day-to-day life and concerns of a young widow named Lavender ("La") Stone, a promising Cambridge student who, like many women of her class and generation, finished school, married well, and led a comfortable and respectable life. In La's case, things take a wrong turn when her philandering husband unexpectedly leaves her, and dies shortly thereafter from an injury incurred during a freak accident. Just before the start of the war in 1939, she retreats to her in-law's country house to sort out the emotional wreckage of her failed marriage and premature widowhood. In this self-imposed exile at the age of 28, she begins to finds solace by helping the war effort in this very quiet corner of civilization. La tends to the hens on a neighbor's farm, starts a victory garden, and conducts an orchestra composed of local amateur musicians. The atmosphere of fear and anxiety of the war years permeates the mood of the novel, and Nazi atrocities and wartime mayhem are certainly referenced and discussed within the story, but like a Shakespearean drama, the physical violence occurs off stage.
Fans will certainly recognize and appreciate McCall Smith's consistently subtle and quiet prose. The writing is smooth and a pleasure to read. The reader feels as if s/he is sitting right beside the characters as they converse across the table and over a strong pot of tea and biscuits. A co-worker told me that this is just the kind of book that she intends to give to her great grandmother as a holiday gift. That sounds like a fine idea, however, but I'd suggest that McCall Smith's story merits a broad audience. La Stone and her rural life in the context of WWII might seem inconsequential or perhaps even quaint. But the book's literary merits don't obscure the gravity of the protagonist's predicament and her pathos. Her daily battles represent generational and social struggles to lead an independent, ethical, and dignified life in the face of hardship, pressing social expectations and conventions, moral ambiguity, and isolation. La Stone may be rendered with softer lines and contours, yet she shares the same qualities of fortitude, wisdom, and grace as McCall Smith's well-known heroines. --Lauren