When I came home from Italy, I found one of the latest Alexander McCall Smith books, La’s Orchestra Saves the World, waiting for me. Needless to say, I was incredibly excited. I adore AMS’s books, and this one seemed especially up my alley–it centers around a woman, La, who starts an amateur orchestra near an RAF base in Suffolk. Long time readers have probably picked up on my interest in the RAF, and my enjoyment of AMS.
AMS’s works are usually intimate, if lighthearted, looks at every day people in often extraordinary (or extraordinarily funny) circumstances. There’s Precious Ramotswe in his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, a strong-willed woman who’s dealt with some tough stuff in her past, but ultimately moves forward. His 44 Scotland Street series features characters like Bertie, a precocious 6-year-old forced to speak Italian and play the saxophone when all he wants is to play with a train set (and have his room a color other than pink).
La’s Orchestra has a strange disconnect. We, the readers, pity and sympathize with La, but we never gain that intimate bond with her. The orchestra barely features into the story. It’s mostly about her and her relationships with men. The book felt very shallow, almost flimsy, at times it was like peering through a veil of smoke. Nothing ever gelled properly.
One part of AMS’s writing is his imitation of the culture through his writing. No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency takes place in Botswana (where AMS lived for a time), and the writing style is different from 44 Scotland Street (which takes place in Edinburgh) and is different from Portuguese Irregular Verbs (which I didn’t particularly enjoy, but it certainly captures the occasionally BS nature of academia). It could be that, as a 21st century American, I don’t understand the disconnect of a city woman living in the countryside during WWII. He captures the vibe so well in his other books, maybe I’m just missing it here.
I suppose I was expecting a different book, one more lighthearted and in line with 44 Scotland Street. I hoped for an interconnecting web of characters who shared the orchestra as common ground–La, the conductor, people from the nearby village, the pilots from the RAF base. Instead, I got the disenchanted La, and only her. There wasn’t enough development of the other characters to form an attachment, and even to her. I pitied La for her unfortunate circumstances, but I never connected with her.
I suppose every once in a while, favorite authors are allowed to hit a bum note.