Alexander McCall Smith takes a break from his popular No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series for this stirring historical novel. In 1939, Lavender flees London to escape the German bombs and her shattered marriage. Settling in a small town, she pulls together a makeshift orchestra to help cope with the times.More
Emily Gray’s narration brings vivid life to Lavender, a determinedly no-nonsense bluestocking who, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, finds refuge from a failed marriage in a bucolic English village. There she forms a local orchestra and develops a relationship with Feliks, a flute-playing Polish refugee whom she eventually comes to suspect of being a German spy. Gray’s performance carries reserves of wit and hesitant curiosity towards her new surroundings, her voice conveying a furrowed brow, a quizzical look, and a dry sense of humor, all of which make for an entertaining performance.
Gray is not always helped by her material: Although Alexander McCall Smith is a wildly successful author, with two very popular series of books translated into almost every known language; his latest is an unfocussed affair that doesn’t quite manage to do justice to the very big themes invoked. But only at a few moments does the awkwardness affect Gray’s sparkling performance, notably her handling of the male characters. The supporting cast of country folk are also drawn with a very broad brush, but, again, there is little in the book to support the narrator. Overall her performance is a real gift to the story, bringing spice and liveliness and real involvement to this slender tale.
The story focuses at the dilemma of tending to one’s own garden, Candide-style, in a period of history that demands action and resolve. The great historical forces can feel bolted on to the rest of the narrative, with the characters stumbling over the joints. Also, the author’s attitude towards the importance of music and art in times of war is unclear: Music, we are assured, can "heal the temper of the world", but the presence of a community orchestra seems an unnecessary layer and contributes very little to the story its members are barely visible. Far more convincing is the mirroring of Lavender's feeling that she has betrayed Feliks with Britain's betrayal of the Polish people in the Yalta Conference, and Gray distinctly portrays Lavender’s struggle as well as the character’s underlying moral strength, a quality that is the book’s finest attribute. Dafydd Phillips
"Delightful...McCall Smith once again creates unforgettable characters and a story that will resonate with readers across generations....A fresh and unforgettable story about the power of human kindness. Highly recommended." (Booklist)
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McCall Smith Does It Again!
- Pamela Harvey "glam"
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