THE CHILBURY LADIES’ CHOIR
When the Vicar tells the ladies of Chilbury that their church choir must disband because all the tenors and basses have been called to fight the Germans at the start of World War II, the women revolt. Led by the indomitable Miss Primrose Trent, the choir reforms itself into a collective of altos and sopranos. Let the fun begin!
Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir starts out on charming notes of laughter and song. Narrated in turn by five Chilbury female residents, the story quickly reveals their winsome insecurities. Two of the choir members are sisters, Venetia and Kitty Winthrop, overprivileged daughters of Chilbury gentry. At age eighteen, Venetia acts like a shallow flirt, while young Kitty is precocious and perhaps too observant. Both boast fine singing voices, so contribute mightily to the music, but their self-indulgent personalities come to life on the written page—Venetia writing to her best friend in London, Kitty keeping a personal diary and book of truths.
Silvie, a Czechoslovakia refuge, makes her home with the Winthrops. Although she rarely speaks, her backstory offers telling wartime contrasts with the Winthrops’ sheltered British lifestyle. These three girls are charming presences in Ryan’s novel, but my favorite narrators are the two older women, one a midwife and the other a nurse. Miss Edwina Paltry, writing regularly to her sister, is a woman to take advantage of every situation. An entrepreneur and a gossip, she helps precipitate the action while constantly defending her every move. Mrs. Tilling is a far more sympathetic character. A timid widow fearful for her son in service, she moves tentatively through the narrative, always trying to placate the other Chilbury women. With a strong alto voice, however, Mrs. Tilling learns her worth as the novel progresses.
What starts out as a light-hearted cozy British book, soon changes its tone. Located not far from Dover and quite close to a secret Litchfield army base, Chilbury soon finds its little community in the midst of war. German bombers regularly appear overhead, and the news from overseas is dire. The threats to England, and to a placid English lifestyle, seem insurmountable. Through tragedy and triumph, however, the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir prevails. Jennifer Ryan insightfully draws their diverse personalities and then helps her characters develop and mature.
By the end of the novel, no one is the same. Wartime and the effects of war have altered every alto and soprano so that their lives change significantly with the war’s escalation. Obviously, the Winthrop sisters must grow up; Venetia falls in love, truly in love, while Kitty learns to take responsibility for her childish actions. Miss Paltry learns to take responsibility, too, though in quite a different way. In some ways, though, Mrs. Tilling develops the most dynamically. Ryan does a masterful job of bringing a wallflower into the limelight.
Ryan never loses her sense of humor or her ironic take on British life, but the impact of World War II haunts the pages of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Sad events do occur. What the ladies do to help themselves through the traumas of war, and how their music brings a modicum of happiness to everyone, turns Ryan’s novel into a heart-warming tale of female friendships in time of need. The story of the choir is one that makes the reader smile, page after page, even as the bombs are dropping all around. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Jennifer Ryan: Stone Cold Cowboy; Her Lucky Cowboy: Renegade Rancher; When It’s Right; His Cowboy Heart; Saved by the Rancher; At Wolf Ranch; The Right Bride; Montana Heat; Falling for Owen; Everything She Wanted; The Return of Brody McBride; Chasing Morgan; Lucky Like Us; Granny Jen is Missing.