La's Orchestra Saves the World

La's Orchestra Saves the World

by Alexander McCall Smith


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A heart-warming stand alone novel about the life-affirming powers of music and company during a time of war, from the best-selling and beloved author of The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
When Lavender, La to her friends, moves to the Suffolk countryside, it’s not just to escape the London Blitz but also to flee the wreckage of a disastrous marriage. But as she starts to become a part of the community, she detects a sense of isolation.  Her deep love of music and her desire to bring people together inspire her to start an orchestra.  Little did she know that through this orchestra she would not only give hope and courage to the people of the community, but also that she would meet a man, Feliks, a shy upright Pole, who would change her life forever.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307473042
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/07/2010
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 428,664
Product dimensions: 7.14(w) x 11.70(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Vers series, and the 44 Scotland Street Series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has served on many national and international bodies concerned with bioethics.  He lives in Scotland.


Edinburgh, Scotland

Date of Birth:

August 24, 1948

Place of Birth:


Read an Excerpt


Two men, who were brothers, went to Suffolk. One drove the car, an old Bristol drophead coupé in British racing green, while the other navigated, using an out-of-date linen-backed map. That the map was an old one did not matter too much: the roads they were following had been there for a long time and were clearly marked on their map—narrow lanes flanked by hedgerows following no logic other than ancient farm boundaries. The road signs—promising short distances of four miles, two miles, even half a mile—were made of heavy cast-iron, forged to last for generations of travellers. Some conscientious hand had kept them freshly painted, their black lettering sharp and clear against chalk-white backgrounds, pointing to villages with names that meant something a long time ago but which were now detached from the things to which they referred—the names of long-forgotten yeoman families, of mounds, of the crops they grew, of the wild flora of those parts. Garlic, cress, nettles, crosswort—all these featured in the place-names of the farms and villages that dotted the countryside—their comfortable names reminders of a gentle country that once existed in these parts, England. It still survived, of course, tenacious here and there, revealed in a glimpse of a languorous cricket match on a green, of a trout pool under willow branches, of a man in a flat cap digging up potatoes; a country that still existed but was being driven into redoubts such as this. The heart might ache for that England, thought one of the brothers; might ache for what we have lost.

They almost missed the turning to the village, so quickly did it come upon them. There were oak trees at the edge of a field and immediately beyond these, meandering off to the left, was the road leading to the place they wanted. The man with the map shouted out, “Whoa! Slow down,” and the driver reacted quickly, stamping on the brakes of the Bristol, bringing it to a halt with a faint smell of scorched rubber. They looked at the sign, which was a low one, almost obscured by the topmost leaves of nettles and clumps of cow parsley. It was the place.

It was a narrow road, barely wide enough for two vehicles. Here and there informal passing places had been established by local use—places where wheels had flattened the grass and pushed the hedgerows back a few inches. But you only needed these if there were other road-users, and there were none that Saturday afternoon. People were sleeping, or tending their gardens in the drowsy heat of summer, or perhaps just thinking.

“It’s very quiet, isn’t it?” remarked the driver when they stopped to check their bearings at the road end.

“That’s what I like about it,” said the other man. “This quietness. Do you remember that?”

“We would never have noticed it. We would have been too young.”

They drove on slowly to the edge of the village. The tower of a Norman church rose above a stand of alders. In some inexplicable mood of Victorian architectural enthusiasm, a small stone bobble, rather like a large cannonball, had been added at each corner of the tower. These additions were too small to ruin the original proportions, too large to be ignored; Suffolk churches were used to such spoliation, although in the past it had been carried out in a harsh mood of Puritan iconoclasm rather than prettification. There was to be no idolatry here: Marian and other suspect imagery had been rooted out, gouged from the wood of pew-ends and reredoses, chipped from stone baptismal fonts; stained glass survived, as it did here, only because it would be too costly to replace with the clear glass of Puritanism.

Behind the church, the main street, a winding affair, was lined mostly by houses, joined to one another in the cheek-by-jowl democracy of a variegated terrace. Some of these were built of stone, flinted here and there in patterns— triangles, wavy lines; others, of wattle and daub, painted either in cream or in that soft pink which gives to parts of Suffolk its gentle glow. There were a couple of shops and an old pub where a blackboard proclaimed the weekend’s fare: hotpot, fish stew, toad-in-the-hole; the stubborn cuisine of England.

“That post office,” said the driver. “What’s happened to it?”

The navigator had folded the map and tucked it away in the leather pocket in the side of the passenger door. He looked at his brother, and he nodded.

“Just beyond the end of the village,” said the driver. “It’s on the right. Just before . . .”

His brother looked at him. “Just before Ingoldsby’s Farm. Remember?”

The other man thought. A name came back to him, dredged up from a part of his memory he did not know he had. “The Aggs,” he said. “Mrs. Agg.”

She had been waiting for them, they thought, because she opened the door immediately after they rang the bell. She smiled, and gestured for them to come in, with the warmth, the eagerness of one who gets few callers.

“I just remember this house,” the driver said, looking about him. “Not very well, but just. Because when we were boys,” and he looked at his brother, “when we were boys we lived here. Until I was twelve. But you forget.”

His brother nodded in agreement. “Yes. You know how things look different when you’re young. They look much bigger.”

She laughed. “Because at that age one is looking at things from down there. Looking up. I was taken to see the Houses of Parliament when I was a little girl. I remember thinking that the tower of Big Ben was quite the biggest thing I had ever seen in my life—and it might have been, I suppose. But when I went back much later on, it seemed so much smaller. Rather disappointing, in fact.”

She ushered them through the hall into a sanctum beyond, a drawing room into which French windows let copious amounts of light. Beyond these windows, an expanse of grass stretched out to a high yew hedge, a dark-green backdrop for the herbaceous beds lining the lawn. There was a hedge of lavender, too, grown woody through age.

“That was hers,” said the woman, pointing to the lavender hedge. “It needs cutting back, but I love it so much I can’t bring myself to do it.”

“La planted that?”

“I believe so,” said the woman.

“We played there,” said one of the brothers, looking out into the garden. “It’s odd to think that. But we played there. For hours and hours. Day after day.”

She left them and went to prepare tea. The brothers stood in front of the window.

“What I said about things looking bigger,” one said. “One might say the same about a person’s life, don’t you think? A life may look bigger when you’re a child, and then later on . . .”

“Narrower? Less impressive?”

“I think so.”

But the other thought that the opposite might be true, at least on occasion. “A friend told me about a teacher at school,” he said. “He was a very shy man. Timid. Ineffectual. And children mocked him—you know how quick they are to scent blood in the water. Then, later on, when he met him as an adult, he found out that this same teacher had been a well-known mountaineer and a difficult route had been named after him.”

“And La’s life?”

“I suspect that it was a very big one. A very big life led here . . .”

“In this out-of-the-way place.”

“Yes, in this sleepy little village.” He paused. “I suspect that our La was a real heroine.”

Their hostess had come back into the room, carrying a tray. She put it down on a table and gestured to the circle of chintzy sofa and chairs. She had heard the last remark, and agreed. “Yes. La was a heroine. Definitely a heroine.”

She poured the tea. “I assume that you know all about La. After all . . .” She hesitated. “But then she became ill, didn’t she, not so long after you all left this place. You can’t have been all that old when La died.”

Reading Group Guide

1. Who are the two brothers in the beginning of the novel? Why are they visiting La's former house in Suffolk? And why does Alexander McCall Smith commence the novel with them? Why does he purposely make their background vague?

2. Why does La marry Richard? Are they compatible in any way? How does time and place influence their decision to get married? Do you think they would have gotten married if they were dating in 2009? At one point later in the novel, La says to Mrs. Agg, "People are the products of their time." What does this mean? Do you agree?

3. In this novel, what are the differences, both obvious and subtle, between life in the city and life in the country in the days before and during World War II? Where would you have preferred to live?

4. Why is Suffolk life so therapeutic for La when she's single again? Do you think she really likes gardening? How is a wartime garden different from a peacetime garden, according to La?

5. There are many references in the novel to suffering in life and the power of music to heal and to provide hope and joy. What is it about music that gives it these properties—and in this novel, particularly classical music? How is different music good for different things, according to the novel? Do you agree?

6. How is music the antithesis of war?

7. How does La's orchestra raise morale and provide a diversion and hope to those playing instruments as well as to the townspeople in the audience?

8. What is the importance of Henry Madden in the novel? Why is he so stubborn and bitter? After being blamed by his wife for the death of his son, why does he, in the absence of any proof, accuse Feliks of being a thief?

9. What do you think the author is saying about xenophobia— the suspicion and hatred of foreigners and "others"—especially during wartime? How do you think things have changed from the 1940s to the present?

10. How did the war transform lives in this novel, turning some upside down in a negative way and others in a positive way?

11. Do you think this is an antiwar novel or do you think it says that war is inevitable?

12. Why does La betray Feliks although she acknowledges that she is in love with him? Do you think she was scared of her feelings for him and this exacerbated her suspicions?

13. Why is La also suspicious of Lennie (who is different from most boys his age), and why does she accuse him to the police with no proof? Does the heightened atmosphere of war cause her to not trust anyone?

14. Describe La's relationship with her Cambridge tutor, Dr. Price. Why is it so fraught with tension? Do you think if La hadn't married, she would have turned out more like Dr. Price?

15. Why does the author, near the end of the book, suddenly switch from the third person to the first person, so that we suddenly hear the story in La's voice? How does this affect your reading of the novel?

16. In the book, "people took pleasure where they could find it, and with gratitude." How are people able to do this, especially when things are in short supply?

17. By the end of the novel, how does music bring love back into La's life?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit

Customer Reviews

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La's Orchestra Saves the World 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 63 reviews.
Elijian_11120707 More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book from start to finish! The author has a fantastic way of enticing you to want to read more and more. The layout of the book is what makes the story come together and the plot is one that any person from various generations can relate to. It is truly talent when a writer can combine a tale of journey(s), love, betrayal, adversity, friendship, desire, generational differences, and culture all in one story so fluently and seamlessly that when it all comes together in the end you find yourself longing for the story to continue. Bravo!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book very much, although it was very bitter-sweet. It had a bit of a slow start but picked up further on.
DoctorJS More than 1 year ago
La's Orchestra Saves the World is a lovely addition to Alexander McCall Smith's impressive list of wonderful books. Set in England during and after WWII, it describes the personal journeys of a set of interesting characters in the framework of a historic time about which all of us, especially Americans I would say, would do well to learn more. Read it. It's one that you'll want to keep.
nancypantslady on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Loved this easy flowing, classic McCall Smith, book. He once again creates a lovable character, flaws and all.
sweetiegherkin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After her husband runs off to France with another woman, 20-something Lavender (La) Stone decides to leave London for the quiet countryside of Suffolk. When World War II breaks out, La searches for a way to join the war effort at home. A chance encounter with a member of the air force leads to two turning points in La¿s life. The first is that she decides to establish an orchestra, to be manned by herself, locals, and military men, so that a thing of beauty ¿ music ¿ may persist despite the devastating war. The second is that she is introduced to Polish airman Feliks Dabrowski, with whom she develops romantic feelings.Although I found parts of this book charming, it was not quite up to par with Alexander McCall Smith¿s other books. The majority of the book went by in the slow pacing that McCall Smith usually uses and is especially appropriate for a book set in a quiet countryside village. However, the ending felt suddenly rushed, and I didn¿t think it quite fit right with the rest of the book. In addition, I found other bits of the narrative structure troubling. For instance, the book opens up with two men going to visit La¿s countryside home, long after she has left. Who are these men? Why are they interested in La? I kept thinking we would hear from them again at the end and they would function as the framing structure for this novel but after that first chapter, they completely disappear. I found this brief section to be not terribly interesting, so I can¿t help but wonder why this was chosen as the opening for the book. Later, towards the end of the novel, instead of going along in the third-person narrative in chronological order, McCall Smith jumps to an odd section where La is supposedly talking to a friend many years in the future in what basically becomes a first-person monologue. It is a very peculiar section, completely out of place with the rest of the novel, which then reverts back to the third-person narrative. These seem like newbie mistakes, not something you would expect from an established author like McCall Smith.Nevertheless, the book contains a number of colorful characters populating the countryside, provides a bit of insight into a historical period, and adds some food for thought type comments through La¿s musings. In addition, the narrator of the audio book was excellent. Overall, the novel had its moments, but I¿m not that I would recommend it.
CloggieDownunder on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
La¿s Orchestra Saves the World is a stand-alone novel by Alexander McCall-Smith. It is set around the time of the Second World War in England. Lavender Stone (La to her friends) leaves London for a Suffolk village in the wake of a disastrous marriage. When the war starts, she becomes a part of the small community in her village. She sets up an orchestra which brings the village and the men on the nearby airbase together and gives them some hope for the future. She also meets Feliks, a shy Polish pilot who has an unexpected effect on her. For me, this book somehow has the feel of Mary Ann Shaffer¿s Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, perhaps because it is set in the same time period. The end seemed to be headed for a let-down, but the last page was a pleasant surprise. As with all Alexander McCall-Smith¿s books, filled with gentle philosophy: it was a joy to read.
pmarshall on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
McCall Smith¿s versatility in writing is shown once again in ¿La¿s Orchestra Saves the World.¿ At one level it reads as a quiet novel of English village life during World War II. La moves to the country following a broken marriage. She settles into a quiet life of reading and music, and as part of the war effort grows vegetables and takes care of a farmer¿s hens. With the help of a British airman she forms an orchestra. An orchestra that helps bring people together and provide some support as the war slowly moves forward.At the first meeting of the orchestra La¿s agreed they will have concerts including a victory concert, but as time passes no one speaks of this. It is avoided like a superstition, but a short time after VE Day La¿s orchestra performs a victory concert to a huge crowd. La believes in the power of music and during the Cuban Missal Crisis she calls the musicians together to perform a peace concert. On another level ¿La¿s Orchestra Saves the World.¿ is about peace and the need for everyday people to be concerned about it, to nurture and care for it. It is too important to be left in the hands of politicians and armies.
kiwifortyniner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is the story of La (short for Lavender) who retreats to the country from a broken marriage. Taking up a suggestion from Tim from a nearby army base she decides to set up an orchestra to raise morale. People from the nearby base and the local villages join the orchestra. This is one of the themes in the novel. The other theme is La's friendshop with a half blind Polish flyer who comes to work on a farm where she is also working. La feels that she might be falling in love with him but has underlying suspicions that he might in fact be a German. This is a different kind of book for Alexander McCall Smith, who himself is a contra-basoon player in an orchestra called The really terrible orchestra, which he helped to found in Edinburgh. I did enjoy this book
BrianEWilliams on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book disappointed me because it was not up to the high standards I have seen in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. There's plenty of potential in the story, but most of it goes unrealized. The basics are here (good story, interesting characters and so on) but they are not fully developed. Perhaps Mr. Smith should have asked Isabel Dalhousie to edit the book. I believe she could have improved it.
VivienneR on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a parable: the simple story describing La's unsophisticated experiences of looking after hens, starting a village orchestra and worrying about the overlap of loyalty and patriotic duty is symbolic of the daunting matter of survival in wartime. La's life is necessarily modest, typical of the bleak days of shortages and insecurity. Happily, The orchestra served as a distraction that helped both musicians and audience endure, not only run of the mill adversity, but the sustained distress of a difficult time.A pleasant, gentle read with subtle reflections of ordinary life while the world was at war.
Shmuel510 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Yawn.When I open a book entitled "La's Orchestra Saves the World," I expect a significant portion of it to deal with La's orchestra. I also expect that orchestra to save the world in some sense, even if metaphorically. I realize that titles are often created by the marketing departments of publishing companies, rather than by the authors, but they ought to exercise some prudence in giving them a passing resemblance to the texts; it's not wise to annoy your customers.La's orchestra comes up almost in passing. It is not a central plot element. It does not save the world. La herself is a privileged Englishwoman who spends World War II in the country, repairing a chicken coop and occasionally musing about her Cambridge professor, whom the author uses to take potshots at academics and/or feminists with little connection to the real world. There's also some shallow romantic wish-fulfillment.I haven't read anything else of Alexander McCall Smith's, and now I know not to bother.
sarah-e on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
La's Orchestra isn't really the focus of this book. It's a story about how WWII affected people at their homes in small English towns. La is a woman who was left alone, comfortable, and purposeless, and found ways to give back to her community. If the story had been written by another author, I don't think it would be so subtle. Stories like this tend to include grand gestures and flamboyant characters. I appreciate the restraint to tell only the relevant parts of La's story, and to tell them in a way that doesn't add unnecessary embellishment. It seems so simple and honest that I absolutely believed every word.
Jcambridge on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful afternoon read this is!! While some the characters resembled those found in some McCall-Smith's other works, this book had a special quality and charm. Set aside a few hours to read this one -- it will be time well spent.
mbmackay on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A deftly told tale by Alexander McCall Smith. The story is simple, but the first chapter starts at the end, and the then the rest of the story unfolds from the beginning. The writing style has a light touch - like a water-colour - and the result is wonderful. Read April 2010.
NewsieQ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of Lavender "La" Stone and the village orchestra she starts in the early days of World War II is the focus of this quite and gentle novel. La is an amazing woman, a survivor -- and her move to the British countryside gets her away from London and the memories of a massive betrayal by the man she loves. La's Orchestra Saves the World moves along slowly, at a pace that many readers might find tedious. But fans of Alexander McCall Smith aren't that type of reader. This stand-alone gem demonstrates once again the amazing ability of this author to get into the mind of women characters, to show them in their glory without glossing over (or dwelling on) their less flattering characteristics. Mr. Smith also shines a light onto the lives of ordinary citizens during a time of war. 12/31/2009
lynndp on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I quite liked this book. It's quiet and reflective. I found myself thinking along with the protagonist, deciding whether I agreed with her decisions. After completing the story I continued to think about whether the protagonist was a heroine? was this a happy ending? All in all, a good read.
reannon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A stand alone novel by Alexander McCall Smith. It is about La, short for Lavender. She goes to college where she shows a lot of promise. She meets and marries, though, but a few years into her marriage her husband leaves her for someone else. She moves into a house her in-laws have in the country. When World War II starts, La decides to start an orchestra in order to improve morale of the villagers and the nearby servicemen. She grows to love a member of the Polish air force who works on a farm nearby.It is a simple and kind story, not terribly exciting, but not everything needs to be.
velocivore on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Charming and affecting. how inadvertent choices make lives and the world. Why does AMS write from women's point of view?
khiemstra631 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While I liked this book, I also felt it was a little difficult to latch onto it. I almost wondered if the author tried to cover a little too much ground. Or, it could have been the first chapter would have possibly worked better as the last chapter? I had to go back and re-read the first chapter after I finished the rest of the book in order to make any sense out of it. Still, when all is said and done, McCall Smith has written a quiet little tale of one English woman's experiences during World War II and slightly before and after the war. While I enjoyed reading it, I suspect it is a book that I will rather quickly forget. It is different from his usual fare but not quite up to his usual level of quality in terms of engaging reader interest.
PensiveCat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Though I did like the story, I didn't love it the way I wanted to. I didn't feel attached to anyone and couldn't understand the point of the orchestra. In fact, the orchestra didn't even come up into the halfway point of the book. Though La was an all right character, I felt that the ease of her financial situation felt unrealistic (as I tend to feel for other Alexander McCall Smith's characters at times). Still, finishing the novel was not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
mooknits on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A beautiful, gentle read. Kind of sad, but most enjoyable. La has such hopes for her life and really it all comes to nothing - such a shame. Well written and a joy to read - I shall certainly attempt some of his other books now.
pennykaplan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
La's husband deserts her and then dies leaving her to put the pieces back together in a small English village. Set during World War II, this is another gentle story from Alexander McCall Smith.
nittnut on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Again, McCall Smith writes a story about a female main character and makes it believable. The story begins just before WWII in England, and ends in the 1960's. It is really about the inhabitants of a small village and how they coped with the war in small ways, gardening, war work, listening to the wireless, and of course, La's orchestra. It is about missing opportunities, and then missing them again, and then finally realizing you have nothing to lose and taking the opportunity when it comes your way again.Quotes:"We can't afford to be without God," Feliks continued. "Even if he doesn't exist, we have to hold on to him. Because if we don't, then how are we to convince ourselves that we have to go on with this fight? If you take God out of it, then right and justice become small, human things. And weak things, too."If gluttony was a deadly sin, then it was only such in peacetime; in war the deadly sins were permitted: surely they were. People took pleasure where they could find it, and with gratitude - chocolate, love, anything that used to be in plentiful supply but which was now hard to find, or rationed.
jzdro on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This engrossing tale can be taken as metaphor for English behavior on the home front and in relations with allies in the Second World War. It's very moving, and thought-provoking. I imagined the main character as Troy from the Inspector Alleyn series. The Polish officer I imagined as, well, the quintessential Polish expatriate officer. Smith is certainly perceptive, humanly and historically.
kmaziarz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Lavender¿La to her friends¿is a widow living a quiet, simple life in the Suffolk countryside, far from the more glamorous and intellectual life she¿d lived in London before her husband first betrayed her and then died in an accident. Retreating to Suffolk to put her life back together had seemed a grand idea at first, but she soon began to feel somewhat at loose ends. When World War II broke out, she dedicated herself to war work, serving as an assistant to a local farmer. Her job? The hens. When a stranded Polish airman joined her in helping out on the farm, La dared to hope that love might find her again¿but Felix showed little more than friendliness toward her. Looking for ways to make a bigger difference, La hit upon the idea of putting together a village orchestra and inviting servicemen from the local base to join villagers in making enthusiastic, if amateur, music. The orchestra made her famous, becoming a huge morale-booster for all involved¿except La, whose unrequited love for Felix was soon joined by suspicions that he hadn¿t been entirely honest about his past.Charming, understated, and resonant, La¿s Orchestra Saves the World is perhaps not quite as layered and nuanced as McCall Smith¿s popular No. 1 Ladies¿ Detective Agency series, but should satisfy nonetheless.