La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

2008. 294 pages. Hardcover. Pantheon Books.

From: The Public Library

Recommended by: A Life in Books

For the challenge: What’s In A Name? (musical term)

In a nutshell:

Lavender “La” Stone is an ordinary woman whose marriage falls apart right before World War II breaks out.  She moves from London to a house in the country.  She joins in several home-front initiatives to support the war effort.  One of these initiatives is an orchestra, which joins together villagers and men from the nearby military base.  A Polish airman attracts her attention, but all of La’s relationships including this one, are tested by the demands of war.


A back-jacket blurb from The Scotsman states that McCall Smith’s character portrait of La is “[a]n excellent re-creation of a woman of her time.”  I have to agree with this.  It’s refreshing to have a character who is somewhat blinkered by her societal upbringing.  La is optimistic about the war’s outcome, but it comes off as naiveté to the other characters, rather than as miraculous foresight.  Though a generally trusting person by nature, she is influenced by the tense atmosphere of the times, where the public was regularly cautioned about possible enemies in their midst.  Though it isn’t stated explicitly, the betrayal of her husband is probably to blame for her shaken trust in others.

I enjoyed seeing the development of La’s relationships to the other characters, especially the arthritic farmer who she helps as part of the war effort, her friend Tim, and the Agg family.

I was expecting more of a romantic plotline between La and Feliks, the Polish airman, based on the book jacket’s summary.  However, as the book unfolds, I realized that it’s more about La’s conflicted feelings about Feliks than on the development of a romantic storyline.  And that seemed more in tune with the subdued nature of the book.

It’s a quiet book about a quiet life.  Plenty of things happen, but they are not epic or dashing.  It’s a home-front story about regrets, hopes and small victories.  I would describe it also as a contained story.  It doesn’t go off on rabbit trails but stays solidly on La.  I did appreciate the way the book highlighted the Polish contribution to the British war effort, and particularly on the subsequent feelings of betrayal when Poland was ‘given’ over to Russia.

Though it’s not a book that made a deep impression on me, I enjoyed it well enough.  If you like the time period and setting, it’s worth checking out.

Other reviews:

See link above for A Life In Books review

Bookworm with a View (finds it similar to Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society)

Hope is the Word

Rebecca’s Reading Rants and Raves

Sparks’ Notes


Filed under Historical Fiction

5 responses to “La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

  1. Eva

    The one McCall Smith book I read didn’t make a deep impression on me either.

  2. This is the same gentleman that wrote The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, yes? Those have the same thing- they’re enjoyable enough, but I don’t remember a thing about them! They just don’t have much of an impact.

  3. Eva and Lit Omnivore – hm, that’s interesting that his other books have had the same effect on you. I think I’ll still get around to reading at least one book from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, just to see what they’re like.

  4. This sounds very different from McCall’s other works (historical rather than contemporary for one thing). I’m not sure his books are meant to make a lasting impact on you and they’re no frequently described as a kind of intelligent comfort food.

    • Jodie – I’m going to give you a longer response than you probably were expecting, just because. 🙂 Though I see the attraction of comfort food books, I do hope for some level of memorability. It’s too early to tell with La’s Orchestra whether it will be a forgettable book or not. I just know that it didn’t have a real ‘wow’ factor for me. I do hope that my review connects the book with people who would enjoy it as much or more than I did.

      Just to clarify, a book doesn’t have to be serious or ‘deep’ or epic to be make a ‘wow’ impression on me. Heck, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, which I read earlier this year, is a light comic novel and it’s in the running for being one of my favorite books read this year. So it can be a fun treat and still impress me in that regard.

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