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Sweetly old fashioned
on 17 November 2008
This is a sweetly old fashioned story set in Suffolk during the Second World War. The heroine, La (it's short for Lavender), moves to the country after her marriage ends. Initially she's very lonely, but gradually she builds relationships and then she has the idea of forming an orchestra for members of the nearby air base as well as for the local villagers. At the same time, the book is about her relationship with a Polish worker (Feliks), for whom she has an unrequited love while also harbouring doubts about his background.
The book starts slowly, spending a lot of time on La's back story. The orchestra is only formed at the half way mark. I found the central part (during the war) very involving, but then it slows right down again after the war ends. McCall Smith does a good job of building suspense about Feliks, but then he lets it dissipate so that when we do eventually find out the truth, we're past caring. There is also one chapter towards the end when the narrative switches to La's point of view and which pre-empts any tension about what might happen when she meets up with her Pole in the next chapter. I felt that there should have been a better way to integrate La's thoughts into the book.
La is a curiously bland and passive character - neither as engaging nor as pro-active as Precious Ramotswe or Isabel Dalhousie. In fact, none of the characters ever came alive for me, although I did really enjoy the way that it captured life in the English countryside at that time. It's an enjoyable story, but it needed to be tightened and it badly needed a better structure. It pains me to be critical because I do love Alexander McCall Smith's writing, but this one felt like it was rushed out for Christmas rather than going back for another re-write.