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Review: Smith's 'La's Orchestra Saves the World' eloquently shows the power of music

Alexander McCall Smith's work as a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and a participant on international bioethics committees informs his popular No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, but perhaps it was his amateur bassoon playing that inspired this new work. Not content with founding the Really Terrible Orchestra in Edinburgh, McCall Smith has established an opera house and opera training center in Botswana. Now his love of music has been translated into a standalone novel called La's Orchestra Saves the World.

Set in England at the onset of World War II, the story centers on a woman named Lavender, La for short. When we meet her, she appears to be intelligent but naive, all duty and no daring. At Cambridge she "joined a music society, and played the flute in a quartet" and received from her tutor some heavy-handed feminist lessons, such as, "All these intelligent girls come to us and then leave, more or less promised to some man. And they go off and marry him and that's the end. What a waste." Although La vows that she has come "to be taught how to think," she marries her first ardent suitor, who ends up betraying her, leaving her and dying just as war breaks out.

La goes off to live alone in an inherited country cottage in Suffolk. "Music was her refuge," he writes. "Reason, beauty, harmony: these were ultimately more real and powerful than any of the demons unleashed by dictators."

La has a chance to test this idea when an air force officer named Tim Honey sees her flute on the kitchen dresser and suggests that there are "chaps at the base who would love to play in a band." And so La's orchestra begins, with her as conductor. The musicians give a rousing victory concert in 1945, but it is during the Cuban missile crisis when La decides to "hold a concert for peace . . . Bach for order; Mozart for healing," that McCall Smith drives his point home. Like a pianist putting listeners at ease with the opening phrase, he immediately makes us feel confident that this is a true and resonant tale.

La's Orchestra Saves the World

By Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon, 294 pages, $23.95

Review: Smith's 'La's Orchestra Saves the World' eloquently shows the power of music 01/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 2, 2010 3:30am]
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