Set in an English country village at the onset of WWII, The Chilbury Ladies Choir is told through letters and journal and diary entries by four female characters who are faced with keeping the home fires burning while their menfolk are off fighting Nazis. The first-person format intrigued me, and the subject sounded promising. However, it was the anticipation of escaping into the lives of “three or four families in a country village” that really hooked me. If English-born author Jennifer Ryan could dish out endearing and foibled characters I was in for a great read.
Ominously, the novel begins with the funeral of Commander Edmund Winthrop, the first casualty of the war from this tight-knit community. The reality of his death hits the remaining residents hard, coupled with the fact that the vicar decided to close the church choir due to the lack of male voices. The ladies rebel. They are done with being told what to do by the few men remaining. Disobeying the vicar, they form the Chilbury Ladies Choir led by Miss Primrose Trent, a music tutor from the local university.
“First, they whisk our men away to fight, then they force us women into work, then they ration food, and now they’re closing our choir. By the time the Nazis get here there’ll be nothing left except a bunch of drab women ready to surrender.” Mrs. Brampton-Boyd (3)
The demise of Edmund sets off a chain of events that will ripple throughout the course of the novel. As the sole male heir to Chilbury Manor, he was set to inherit the family pile. His overbearing father, a retired brigadier prone to bursts of outrage and indignation, is determined to keep the property in the family. To ensure that his pregnant wife delivers a male heir, he engages the services of the dodgy local midwife Miss Edwina Paltry to orchestrate a baby-swapping scheme.
Another key character sharing the narrative is Mrs. Margaret Tilling, a timid middle-aged widow whose only child is preparing to leave for the front lines in France. And then there’s the Winthrop sisters: Venetia and Kitty. At eighteen and thirteen-years-old respectively, they have a lot on their plate and even more to write about to their best friend in London and in their diary. Their not-so-beloved bother has just been killed—blown up in a submarine in the North Sea; their pushing middle-age mother is miraculously pregnant; all the illegible men are away at war; there are food and clothing rationing, which means there is no sugar or new frocks to be had; and their tyrant of a father—well, he is just fuming about everything.
“Music takes us out of ourselves, away from our worries and tragedies, helps us look into a different world, a bigger picture. All those cadences and beautiful chord changes, every one of them makes you feel a different splendor of life. Prim Trent (104)
Through the letters and diaries, we engage with the characters as they share the everyday events and challenges of their lives. Each of the four ladies has their own set of problems yet they are intertwined with each other. Ryan has chosen a range of ages and social strata of the characters varying the perspective of voices as the main narrators of her drama. In addition to the humorous events surrounding Miss Paltry’s hyperbolic baby-swapping scheme, Venetia, the local “accomplished flirt,” who had multiple men pursuing her before they departed for the war, is involved with the one young man left in the village, an rakish artist who appears to be involved in the black market and other activities of national security; Mrs. Tilling, on the other hand, is required to house a gentleman working at a local war defense think tank; while Kitty suffers teen romance angst and dreams of becoming a professional singer. The one constant in their lives during a time of uncertainty is the choir. When they sing together all their troubles melt away and they feel joy again.
Thwarting my concerns, Ryan succeeds in conveying the immediacy of each character’s impressions and emotions through her clever use of melodrama. This is a high-energy novel. There is always something new to prompt us to turn the page! I also found that the strength of this novel lies in her skill at building unique characterizations—people whose personalities we can identify with through personal experience or from the pages of fiction. While the outcome of Mrs. Paltry’s machinations is predictable, (and in turn thoroughly amusing for this reader), I was delighted by the character arc of Mrs. Tilling who represents how subjugated women were before the war, and of the shallow, vain Venetia, whose value shifts were the biggest surprise.
“Perhaps there is something good that has come from this war: everything has been turned around, all the unfairness made grimly plain. It has given us everyday women a voice—dared us to stand up for ourselves, and to stand up for others.” Mrs. Tilling (168-169)
I listened to the audio recording while I read this book, an engaging feature on my Kindle that brought the story vividly to life by an excellent ensemble of five narrators. I do not often mention artwork or book design in my reviews; however, the cover is so stunning it earned my sincere admiration. In addition, I was delighted to find a hand-drawn map of Chilbury village on the endpapers which I studied intently. (I adore maps in books).
In turns comical, tragic, and joyous, The Chilbury Ladies Choir soars like a crescendo of a classic English hymn, rousing our emotions, lifting our spirits, and transporting us onto a different plain—I recommend it highly. I am looking forward to reading Ryan’s next novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane, which was released in June 2019.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Chilbury Ladies Choir: A Novel, by Jennifer Ryan
Crown Publishing Group (2017)
Hardcover, trade paperback, ebook, and audiobook (432) pages
Disclosure of Material Connection: We purchased a copy of the eBook and the audiobook for our own enjoyment. We only review products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Cover image courtesy of Crown (Penguin Random House) © 2017; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2019, Austenprose.com