15. La's Orchestra Saves the World, by Alexander McCall Smith
Not every battle of World War II was fought by soldiers, on the seas and oceans, on the beaches, on the landing fields. And if there were no combatants involved, some were still indeed fought in the fields and the streets, as ordinary English men and women went about their lives, riding out the storm of war, doing the small things that needed doing.*
This novel, a departure from McCall Smith's usual serial work, is about one such Englishwoman, Lavender Stone, in one small Suffolk village.
Lavender Stone did not go to Cambridge to find a husband, yet she did. While at Girton College, she met and was pursued by Richard Stone. Marrying him, she fell into an ordinary sort of marriage, gradually coming to love him as she had believed he loved her, only to find the idyll shattered when he absconds to live with another woman in France. La retreats to a cottage owned by her in-laws to lick her wounds, but is shortly called to go to France where her husband has been fatally injured in a freak accident. On the way home, her ship stops and the captain informs the passengers that England is at war.
Back in Suffolk, La begins to rebuild her life under the cloud of war. She must learn that life here is different from life in London, that people are different, that customs are different. As we have come to expect from McCall Smith, we are introduced to a variety of interesting folks, from Henry Madder, the arthritic farmer for whom La begins to do a bit of work, to Feliks Dabrowski, the Polish soldier and refugee in whom she takes an interest and who may not be what he seems, to her neighbors the Aggs and their odd son.
Gradually, La settles in. Then a chance word in a conversation with an Air Force officer gives her an idea, an idea that "came suddenly, as perfectly formed ideas sometimes do. She would start an orchestra." And so she does. Villagers and soldiers come together to play music, unifying the community in the face of a crisis that goes on, day after day, until they play a victory concert.
That concert is echoed years later, in the days of the Cuban missile crisis, when La brings the orchestra back together for a concert for peace, a time when, as I well remember, we all thought we were going to die in a nuclear holocaust. She chose "Bach for order; Mozart for healing", good choices, I think.
I don't believe that one can fully appreciate or understand this book if one does not take into consideration the great love that Alexander McCall Smith, a musician himself, has for music**, and his belief in its transformative power. It is music that brings La into her own, after a life that has been mostly reactive, a life that, as she herself says, has been that of a "handmaiden". Music, and the bringing together of others for the purpose of making music, helps her move forward into life and love.
* apologies to Winston for the paraphrasing!
** Surely the fact that he named a character "Leontine Price" is not accidental!