Hung up with the strings

4th July 1997 at 01:00
THE SANDY BOTTOM ORCHESTRA. By Garrison Keillor and Jenny Lind Nilsson. Faber Pounds 9.99

The fourth of July is personal independence day for Rachel Green, a 14-year-old violinist playing in her first professional concert at the day's big bash in the local park.

Sandy Bottom is a small midwest town not a million miles from Lake Wobegon. But this novel from Garrison Keillor and his wife is more than an update from Keillor country, although the sharp character snapshots are predictably entertaining.

It is also a rewarding study of what it means to live in a small community as the gifted only child of arty, liberal, eccentric parents. Rachel, an engaging and mature heroine, grapples with stage fright and self-consciousness, becomes resigned at the loss of her best friend to softball and agonises over first love in the second violins.

Lake Wobegon Days showed us Keillor's fictionalised view of himself, brought up on strict Plymouth Brethren lines while dreaming his real parents ran a circus. He has now helped create the sort of family life he would probably have preferred, although Rachel's embarrassment at her elders echoes that of the young Gary in Lake Wobegon Days.

Mr Green is a born conductor who rises above his alter ego as a dairy manager. Mrs Green is a concert pianist reduced to playing the church organ, whose frustration at small-town life drives her to chain-smoke while being obsessed about a healthy diet.

The fine detail of the parents' strengths, fallibilities and contradictions might be more easily picked up by adults, but readers of all ages will identify with her, and with the excitement as the performance takes shape amid the chaos of clashing egos and jangling nerves.

The obvious questions - are the authors parents of a real Rachel? Did they really write this together? - are best left unanswered. As in parenting, it doesn't matter who did what. If it works you can't see the joins.

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