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La's Orchestra Saves the World: A Novel Hardcover – December 8, 2009

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, December 2009 Fans of Alexander McCall Smith's female sleuths Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie will find just a few mysteries punctuating the story line of his new stand-alone novel. The story 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 go awry when her philandering husband unexpectedly leaves her, and dies shortly thereafter in a freak accident. 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, she finds solace in contributing to the war effort--tending to the hens on a neighbors farm, cultivating a victory garden, and conducting an orchestra composed of local amateur musicians. In this quiet and intimate book, La’s rural life might seem inconsequential or perhaps even quaint, but her predicament and pathos are moving. And, her daily battles represent important generational and social struggles among women to lead independent and dignified lives in the face of hardship, moral ambiguities, burdensome class and social conventions, and isolation. La Stone may be rendered with softer lines and contours, yet she bears many of the memorable and inspiring qualities of McCall Smith's well-known heroines. --Lauren Nemroff Exclusive: Alexander McCall Smith on La's Orchestra Saves the World

I wrote La’s Orchestra Saves the World because I wanted to pay tribute to rather brave people. I wanted to say something about how ordinary people managed to get by during the Second World War. Most of them would not have regarded themselves as heroes and heroines, but they were. La (short for Lavender) was one of these. She worked on the land, helping a farmer with his chickens, and also started a little orchestra for British and American airmen. Music, she felt, helps. And it does--it inspires and heals.

The other group I wanted to pay tribute to was the Poles. Polish servicemen played a major role in the war. Their airmen, for example, participated in the Battle of Britain, that crucial battle that decided the fate of Europe. At the end of the war the Poles were betrayed and the contribution of their forces largely ignored. In the victory parade in London, the Poles were not allowed to march with everybody else (Stalin insisted on this). So those brave men stood at the side of the road and wept. This book is about them too.--Alexander McCall Smith

(Photo © Chris Watt)

From Publishers Weekly

Set mainly during WWII in England, this quiet story about a woman who makes a new life for herself falls short of bestseller Smith's best work. After La Stone's husband leaves her for another woman in France, La retreats to a small cottage in Suffolk given to her by her mortified in-laws. The isolation and peacefulness suit La, who joins the Women's Land Army soon after the outbreak of war. When Feliks Dabrowski, an attractive Polish ex-pat, is assigned to the same farm where La is assisting with chores, La is attracted to him, despite her suspicions that Feliks hasn't been fully truthful about his past. La's idea to launch an amateur local orchestra to boost morale proves an unexpected success and helps give her purpose during the war's darkest days. While the understated prose appeals, La just isn't as interesting a creation as the author's two female sleuths, Precious Ramotswe (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency) and Isabel Dalhousie (The Sunday Philosophy Club). (Dec.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon (December 8, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307378381
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307378385
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.6 x 7.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (113 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,104,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Alexander McCall Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana. He is now Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh. He has written more than fifty books, including a number of specialist titles, but is best known for The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, which has achieved bestseller status on four continents. In 2004 he was awarded British Book Awards Author of the Year and Booksellers Association Author of the Year. He lives in Scotland, where in his spare time he is a bassoonist in the RTO (Really Terrible Orchestra).

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

142 of 144 people found the following review helpful By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 22, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Alexander McCall Smith has built a following based on his serial novels -- the Mma Ramotswe mysteries set in Botswana as well as the two series of more general fiction set in his home town of Edinburgh. In those, each chapter is essentially a self-contained story, each of which builds on the events in previous chapters and creates a narrative arc leading toward the book's conclusion. In "La's Orchestra Saves the World", the author has taken a much more conventional structure, although his main character, La herself, is anything but a traditional heroine, although in her own way she is just as quirky as any Botswanan sleuth or 40-something Edinburgh bluestock philosopher.

La, the eponymous heroine, after a series of events, is living in the English countryside, somewhat rootless and aimless, when World War 2 breaks out. Her need -- never strongly felt -- to seek a place for herself gives way to a quest to make herself useful. She cares for a local farmer's hens, creates a garden -- and, to her own astonishment, creates a ramshackle kind of orchestra made up in part of the airmen from a local RAF base.

This is not a war novel in any sense; the conflict itself is distant from the day to day lives of La and her neighbors, even as they must cope with everything from the deaths of those they know to the vicissitudes of rationing. The style, plot and character development are as old-fashioned in feeling as La's proper name -- Lavender. But there is a hint of mystery and even tension when La comes on the scene. A Polish airman -- or is he? -- he plays the flute in La's orchestra, and helps out on the farm. But not everyone is as drawn to Felix as is La, and even she realizes there are some unanswered questions about his background...
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Debra Hamel VINE VOICE on September 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover
In his new stand-alone novel La's Orchestra Saves the World, Alexander McCall Smith tells the story of La (Lavendar) Stone, a Cambridge graduate who marries her sweetheart because it's the thing to do and subsequently finds herself falling in love with him. But her life doesn't unravel quite as she might have expected. World War II intervenes, for one thing, and La finds herself living in a small village in Suffolk, tending hens as part of the war effort and conducting an amateur orchestra by way of keeping up morale in the village and on the nearby RAF base.

I had every intention while reading the book to express surprise in my review that the author should have tacked onto his story such an unnecessary and uninteresting first chapter: it's set probably in the present day, or close enough, and introduces La as someone already dead, her orchestra a distant memory. Her life story, then, is a reminiscence. I dislike having a story framed in this way as it distances one from the main narrative. And I suppose it's an unwelcome reminder of the ephemerality of a single life. It tells you the end of the story--she's dead; it's all finished now one way or the other--before it even begins. That said, when you get to the last pages of the book, the first chapter suddenly makes sense, so it is not just an unnecessary appendage after all. I still don't like it, though, and I don't like the last chapter, either. It would be a slightly different book--but quite possibly a better one--if the first and last chapters were simply cut from it and the rest left as it stands. The last sentence of the book's penultimate chapter would even serve very nicely as this revised story's conclusion. Still, La's Orchestra, a quiet book about momentous times, is yet another worthy addition to McCall Smith's extensive oeuvre.

-- Debra Hamel
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64 of 74 people found the following review helpful By Kerry Raymond on April 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover
As a fan of Alexander McCall Smith, I rather eagerly picked up "La's Orchestra Saves the World", which is a one-off novel and not part of any of his regular series (No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Scotland Street).

However, I was disappointed with the novel. It's not McCall Smith's finest by any means.

The book opens well, 2 brothers return to the village where La used to live and the ensuing conversation with the locals tantalises us with hints about La, without revealing much. You read on feeling that an interesting story is about to unfold. However, the story of La's life is characterised by being largely uninteresting. La drifts along, mostly taking the path of least resistance until other people or external events force her to take a new direction. Some phases of La's life are dealt with in incredible detail and various future directions in the storyline seem to be introduced but they are never progressed. Then towards the end of the book I felt that some publisher's deadline must have been pressing and La's life is suddenly compressed into a quick sequence of events and then the book finishes.

As I turned the last page, I was unclear in what way La's Orchestra had saved the world? Indeed, the story of the orchestra is a relatively small part of the book. La lived a small life that briefly raised morale in a small way in a time of war. She had a long-term love affair that seemed to rely on chance rather than any effort by her to develop the relationship.

I fully believe it is possible to write an interesting story of an ordinary life (and the author does so in many of his novels). But this story didn't seem to achieve it. I am curious if the novel was inspired by a real person known to the author and this book was intended as some kind of homage.

It hasn't turned me off Alexander McCall Smith. I'm prepared to let an author experiment with a new style, but I think it was a failed experiment in this case.
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