Monday, March 13, 2017

Book Review: "The Chilbury Ladies' Choir" by Jennifer Ryan


A meek widow, an unscrupulous midwife, an ambitious 13-year-old girl, a self-absorbed teenage beauty, a domineering society matron, a Jewish refugee child: these are among the fascinating characters we meet in  Jennifer Ryan's "The Chilbury Ladies' Choir." The Ladies' Choir forms during World War II when the absence of most of the menfolk in the small English village of Chilbury results in the local vicar disbanding the church choir. The women are at first disappointed, but no one is willing to protest, until a local (female) music professor posts an announcement that she is forming a ladies' choir. At first there is a mixed reaction from the locals, everything from excitement to shock. But the ladies soon find themselves "wondering why we'd been closed down in the first place, why the Vicar had so much say over us. And, more to the point, why we'd simply let him do it." This is the beginning of these women questioning the way everything had always been done, and the beginning of many personal journeys of change.

"The Chilbury Ladies' Choir" is a fascinating study of how war affects those who are left behind on the home front, how the women are changed because of the changes around them. Each of the delightful characters in this book takes a clear journey because of the events of the war: the meek becoming stronger and more self-confident; the self-absorbed seeing the importance of those outside themselves; the fearful and lonely learning to trust in and rely on others; each woman seeing herself not just as an individual, but as part of the greater sisterhood of humankind who must work together for the greater good.

The story is told in the form of journal entries and letters, with each woman describing her own thoughts and experiences. This technique allows for a delightful variety of tone with each character. Mrs. Tilling, the widow, is thoughtful and introspective; Kitty, the young girl, is exuberant and curious; Miss Paltry and Venetia, the midwife and the beauty, respectively, send letters in which they admit their "wickedness", at first with delight and then with fear and concern and perhaps a dash of guilt.

The charm of this book is how believable each character - and her journey - is. There is no sudden, inexplicable jump from A to B, but instead there is a slow revelation of each woman's thought process as she discovers strengths - and occasionally weaknesses - inside herself which are brought out by the unusual situations and needs brought on by war. The women are brought together by joining the choir, and they learn to rely on themselves and on each other, despite (and in some cases, because of) their differences, in order to make the choir succeed. But the choir is really just a symbol of how the women are brought together by the war. Mrs. Tilling sums it up in her journal when she states, "Funny how a bit of singing brings us together. There we were in our own little worlds, with our own problems, and then suddenly they seemed to dissolve, and we realized that it's us here now, living through this, supporting each other. That's what counts."

If you love British period television shows like "The Crown," "The Bletchley Circle," "Call the Midwife," "Brideshead Revisited," and even "Downton Abbey," you will thoroughly enjoy the characters and settings of "The Chilbury Ladies' Choir." There's enough intrigue in the form of illicit (and "licit") affairs, unplanned pregnancies, sibling rivalry, spies and double agents, deaths, and even baby swapping to keep you turning the pages, yet nothing feels forced or unrealistic. We all know people like each of these characters; whatever "village" we may be a part of, they are a part of it as well.


I received this book for review from Blogging for Books. For more information about The Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan, please see the Penguin Random House website.

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