Note on books: La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

I picked this book up at the Book Fair earlier in the year and got around to reading it thanks to the fact that I was housebound for a week. I liked McCall Smith’s other books and I thought that it would be easier to read since it is a standalone book not a part of the series. Well, I was right.

La’s Orchestra is a sedate little book about Lavender Fergusson (later La and Mrs. Stone) that is very much in the same vein as Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. A sort of a feel-good book about peripheral people during the Second World War. But then I was looking for a sedate book and it lived up to my expectations. You can even treat this book as a holiday from other exciting books.

Pretty much nothing happens in the book even though Word War II rages on. We follow La as she is born in Surrey, loses her mother at 15, goes to college at Cambridge, marries, separates and goes back and forth Suffolk and London. She seems the most intellectually engaged when studying English Literature under the militant Feminist Dr Price in Cambridge and that’s usually by disagreeing with her. She marries Richard Stone because he is very charming and persuasive and is shocked by both her infertility and his infidelity. (I don’t believe they are causally related. As La herself says during her student discussion on T.S Elliot, ‘Post hoc is not always propter hoc.’)

Her in-laws’ Suffolk home sounds like a perfect getaway. She comes on her own after she moves to Suffolk to heal her broken heart. When Richard dies in France in a freak accident, his share of their family enterprise makes La a young and well-off widow. While living in rural Suffolk, she wants to do something for the war effort. She tends to farmer Henry’s hens, builds a friendship with the neighbour Mrs. Agg and farmer Henry and Tim, a friend’s cousin who calls on her. Out of sheer boredom (La’s an intelligent though somewhat passive woman) she puts together a rag-tag orchestra, which becomes a symbol of victory first and then of peace. With Tim making all the arrangements, La’s Orchestra is born.

When Feliks Dabrowski, a Polish airman, is assigned to work in Henry’s farm, La feels attracted to him as he does too however reserved he is. But there is a war going on and so along with tea and biscuits, love seems a luxury to indulge in. She also suspects that Feliks is German and the general mistrust in the air creates a spot of trouble where Feliks is arrested. Later he is released honourably, which makes La feel guilty. Five years on, the Orchestra gives its Victory concert, which cheers up the village enormously and fills them with a sense of purpose that is not just to do with guns and politics. La conducts her orchestra, which had long started to take on symbolic proportions. Feliks too plays in it. However, after the war, people are scattered and she goes back to life in London, which is markedly different from the one she led before that.

Her in-laws’ considerable fortune comes to her, leaving her with no worries about how to fund her life. If anything, La seems to have both time and money and yet doesn’t seem to do much with it. She is politically aware and even joins a peace march sometime in her 50s. She meets Feliks who has married and has two kids. With the arms race and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s, La feels the end of the world looming close yet again and so calls on her the few Orchestra buddies she had been in touch with through the years. They turn up as if summoned and the Orchestra plays its peace concert. Towards the end of the concert, peace is declared. Hence, the title. Only if you allow for the flawed logic, which seems to be an echo of ‘post hoc is not always propter hoc.’ Towards the end of the book, she makes a decision to ask Feliks and his boys to stay with her.

La is one of the most detached protagonists I have ever read. Events happen to her; she is not the one who decides. If Murakami ever decides on a female protagonist, La would be her. But it’s refreshing since there are very few protagonists whose agency is not with them. Sometimes, other things and people make decisions. La does have ideas, making the decision to move to Suffolk and move back to London, growing her vegetable garden, taking lemonade to Feliks as he works on the farm. But there is this feeling that La holds her breath and waits around way too much. Her sense of decorum and propriety stop her from acting on her feelings. In that sense La is almost ordinary. But ordinariness also has its place in the scheme of things. The ordinary English life, the ordinary English people, the ordinary garden – it seems the war was being fought to protect exactly this ordinary life. So La’s Orchestra, the book, is a celebration of ordinariness. It makes me think of Doctor Who and the Doctor’s delight in the everyday and ordinary human beings.

So the book’s a read for a lazy Sunday afternoon preferably in the garden with a cup of tea and biscuits. It won’t shake your beliefs or make you question anything. It will however make you feel warm and take delight in the ordinary.

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