Toronto : Knopf Canada, c2009.
This is a standalone novel by the prolific McCall Smith, best known for his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. I've read all of his work, and I usually greatly enjoy it. La's Orchestra is a little different. It takes place in England during WWII. La (short for Lavender) lives in a small house in Suffolk, where she has moved after first having been abandoned by her philandering husband and then widowed. The novel follows her as she gets to know her fellow villagers, volunteers for some war work caring for chickens on a neighbouring farm, starts up an amateur orchestra made up of locals and soldiers from the nearby air base, and makes the acquaintance of one of these soldiers -- Felix, a Polish flyer who has been blinded in one eye and thus can no longer fly.
McCall Smith excels in a calm, methodic pace of storytelling, which I especially like in the Isabel Dalhousie novels -- it suits Isabel's character. He is also marvellous at evoking a sense of place, one reason I think his Botswana novels are so cherished. This novel, while full of interesting characters and a situation rife with possibilities -- WWII, how can it not be exciting? -- doesn't really work in the same successful way for me. La is too reserved to engage my concern; her husband cheats on her, leaving her for a French woman, in 40's England. She maintains her equanimity throughout, not even bashing him with a frying pan when he tells her -- or even thinking about it. She remains close friends with her in-laws, in fact they give her the Suffolk house she moves to. She develops a relationship with her village neighbours, one of whom, Mrs. Agg, has a creepy adult son who breaks into La's house when she isn't there and lurks about as a peeping Tom. She doesn't seem to worry about it, instead still visiting with Mrs. Agg and being pleasant to her son. Also, when she meets Felix it is clear in the narrative that there is supposed to be a romance, but I don't feel it. La makes no attempt to secure Felix's attentions; if she was first a neglected wife and then a widow, and it is the war when regular reserved social behaviour was generally slackened, why in god's name would she not try to inveigle Felix into her very much lived-in-alone house? I would have! ;) The end is a bit pat as well, though I won't spoil it here. I found that there was not as much adoration for Suffolk coming through as there is for Edinburgh or Botswana in his other works.
Despite these frustrations, mainly to do with La's coldness of character, I did like the book. McCall Smith can always populate a novel with a wide and varied cast of characters. The addition of the air base injected another element into the book, adding to its breadth. McCall Smith, as the founder of the Really Terrible Orchestra, knows something about music. The way that the amateur orchestra kept village spirits up and brought them all together was a great uniting theme. He shows Felix and La getting to know one another by playing flute duets (they even play the same instrument; I ask, could you sit for an evening playing flute duets with a man you're interested in and then bid him goodnight calmly and disinterestedly?)
I enjoyed the setting even if I felt it could have been livened up a little. (For example, I kept thinking of the excellent evocation of the hothouse emotions of just such an English wartime village in a short story by Rosamond Lehmann, "Wonderful Holidays".) La spends time working on a nearby farm and the eccentricities and prejudices of the owner allow for McCall Smith to do one of his favourite things, reflect on wider themes suggested by the narrative. And as always with McCall Smith, I found bits which I just had to copy out into my commonplace book. Overall, I thought this was a good wartime book, which could easily be read in concert with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, to give us an idea of women's lives during war in close by but very different regions.