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Onyx reviews: La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

After a brief and ultimately pointless prolog set in the modern era featuring two men who travel to Suffolk to track down La (Lavender) Stone's history, La's Orchestra Saves the World moves back six decades to the time when 22-year old La discovers that her husband of two years has abandoned her for another woman and moved to France. Even his parents are disgusted by his cavalier disregard for his obligations, so they offer La their country home in Suffolk as a place to nurse her wounds, get away from the insanity of life in London, and figure out what comes next.

Shortly before World War II breaks out, La learns that her husband was involved in an accident in Bordeaux, one from which he won't survive. She and her father-in-law make a duty call to his hospital, but the visit does not provide her with any real closure. On the return trip, the captain of their boat advises them that they are now at war.

She returns to Suffolk to find out what her life is about in this new status quo. She is essentially alone in the world: her mother died when she was young, and her Cambridge tutor, Dr. Pierce, a potential surrogate, is distant and dismissive. Though she was a promising student, La fell into the trap that Pierce warned her against: she met an affluent man, married him, and fell in love with him, in that order. Now, however, she is determined to become independent and fit into the small community. Here she discovers no shortage of intrigue, including the possibility that someone is breaking into her house. She turns her flower garden into a vegetable garden to supply herself and local soldiers against the inevitable rationing.

Though the war does not arrive in Suffolk, every airplane that passes overhead could be a German bomber. Some of the men who depart from the nearby RAF base never come back. La looks for ways to contribute to the effort. Volunteers are received with open arms, but the tasks that are doled out are often mundane. La is assigned to assist a local farmer named Madder who suffers from arthritis. Every morning she commutes to the farm on her bicycle to feed and tend to his hens.

Her contact at the base, Tim Honey, mentions that he plays the trumpet, inspiring La to start a community orchestra that will take advantage of any talent, no matter how limited, at the base. It will improve morale, she argues, even if their overall talent quotient isn't great. (In passing, it should be noted that the author is a member of an amateur orchestra called the Really Terrible Orchestra, in Edinburgh.) 

A wild card enters the equation in the form of Feliks Dabrowski, a Polish pilot who lost an eye after being shot down in battle and is subsequently also assigned to work at Madder's farm. He admits to being a flautist, though he does not have an instrument, and La finds him attractive but comes to suspect that he is keeping a secret. La feels protective toward the man, but she is also attracted to him. When Madder is robbed, outsiders become the obvious suspects. Concerned by inconsistencies in Feliks's story, La is torn between patriotism and the possibility that she could ruin the man she is falling in love with. 

The book's title is a little misleading. The orchestra La starts does not feature all that largely in the novel. After the war ends, it makes what might be its final performance, a victory concert. Parades celebrate Germany's fall, but Britain caves in to Stalin's demands that the Polish soldiers, some of whom took part in the Battle of Britain, not be allowed to march with the others, a macroscopic betrayal that parallels La's own perceived betrayal of Feliks.

After this, the novel speeds up, covering scattered events over the next two decades, until the Cuban Missile Crisis renews the terror that the world could change forever overnight. La's orchestra reunites for a peace concert that reflects her philosophy about the healing power of music, and she once again meets up with Feliks, at which time she learns that any possible future they might have had has passed, since he is now married and a father.

As with most of McCall Smith's novels, this is a gentle book. The crises are small in scope and personal in nature. The resolution to most of the problems come about as a result of consideration for the feelings of others.

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