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
©2008 Alexander McCall Smith; (P)2009 Recorded Books, LLC
"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)
I live in Vermont. My freelance work requires reading critical and expository prose, so I like fanciful escapist fare for fun.
loads of atmosphere
musing, quiet, not as clever or rollicking as Scotland Street series -author and listener try hard to put themselves in the time and place
rushing through the rain to the farm by bike - or perhaps the moment of looking up as the concert begins and there he is in the woodwind section
mostly told from La's point of view: she tries to understand everyone - farm folk were particularly nicely evoked
not nearly enough bookmark breaks for skipping forward and back in case you missed something: not even one per chapter, but something like one every eight chapters--drove me crazy!
I enjoy all of Alexander McCall Smith's books and decided to try this 'one off' novel. I'm SO glad I did! AMS has the gift of taking his reader wherever he wants them to be: a dusty town in the Botswana dry season, a back garden in an upscale neighborhood of Scotland, and now a country village in 1940's Sussex. I disagree with the review that said the music portions felt "bolted on" - as I believe that in a time of extended crisis the average person will either run around screaming about the sky falling, or will take a good grasp on the things in their lives that they CAN control. It may be music, or the vegetable garden (a necessity for many during those times of rationing), or even helping a disabled farmer continue to contribute to the war effort by caring for his chickens. To see how people are affected by those stressors all you have to do is look at the changed behavior of Americans in the days, weeks and months following 9/11 - and that was just one day of terror, not years of bombs falling out of the sky on a nightly basis.
So, he's done it again - the book is heartwarming and a nearly complete picture is painted of the charming Sussex village and the lonely young woman who finds herself there during a remarkable period of history.
I HAD TO WRITE A REVIEW BECAUSE I CAN'T BELIEVE ANYONE WOULD GIVE THIS BOOK 5 STARS! I loved the first three No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, after that they were still enjoyable, but gradually lost their spark. I was hoping that Smith would come roaring back with this new subject "La". Did the book ever begin? Was there a story worth writing anywhere in it? Nothing ever happened. What was there to like? I didn't even like "La". She could have opened up her home to people in need. But no, she was an aristocrat who tended chickens and thought herself noble for the effort. If you want to read an excellent story set in WW2, read "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society"
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