La’s Orchestra Saves the World

La's Orchestra Saves the World

La’s Orchestra Saves the World

La’s Orchestra Saves the World, Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is known for his series, such as the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, the 44 Scotland Street books, and the Sunday Philosophy Club Series.  I’ve picked up one or two from the others, but my mother and I particularly enjoy and share the 44 Scotland Street series with each other, which I first started reading when I was on maternity leave with my first child.  For the most part I enjoy McCall Smith, his books offering little slice of life vignettes, and providing light, pleasurable and easy reading.  I especially appreciate the way that he can sketch out a character with just a few lines, using just a brief spotlight on their activity or thoughts to provide an insight into who they are and allowing you to fully appreciate the person.  An author who is skilled with characters is a treat to read, and can often tell a whole story within a paragraph.

Unfortunately, I don’t think La’s Orchestra Saves the World, a rare stand alone piece from McCall Smith, plays to his strengths.  In the story, Lavender (La) goes to college in the years before World War II, where she is pursued by and quickly marries a man who soon runs off with another woman.  His family, embarrassed, takes care of La and sets her up in their country home, where she lives throughout the War helping with a local farm, meeting a Polish refugee, and creating an amateur orchestra from the community that brings people together and saves the world.  Near the end of the book, the Cuban missile crisis has recently ended and, with the Cold War in full swing and the threat of nuclear war hanging over everything, she reconvenes the orchestra with a concert for peace.

My mom loved this book and recommended it to me since I play violin and piano and am generally in favor of concerts for peace and other corny things like that.  However, this book just didn’t work for me.  I rather enjoyed the beginning of it, which was mostly painting a picture of La as a smart woman who wants to accomplish things but is not particularly driven to break from the mold in the 30s, which I found a rather poignant portrait indeed.  However, once she moves to the country, once the war breaks out and the story begins, it rather drifted away from me.

For one thing, the book felt slight.  McCall Smith’s books are, to a great extent, slight, little appetizers that you might read before digging in to a meatier novel.  But while that is suitable in something like a 44 Scotland Street novel, it didn’t seem to work in a book about war and peace and love where we never get below those surface sketches of the characters.  On a similar line, there really wasn’t much of a story.  The orchestra takes its time in getting there, and then doesn’t do much.  The number of characters in the book is low, and then there are suddenly these many, many people who play in the orchestra and turn up for its reunion concert when nothing has really been done to show how this has impacted the community before.  There are people referencing the orchestra throughout the book, for sure, but the old maxim of show don’t tell holds here as well as in most story telling endeavors.

La’s Orchestra Saves the World is pleasant enough, but I felt like it was floating above the surface of a story without ever settling in.  I never understood how the orchestra saved the world, or even just the small corner of it that it was meant to affect, and i just never felt the there there.  I suppose I’ll stick with the series from here on out.

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