For readers of Lilac Girls and The Nightingale, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir unfolds the struggles, affairs, deceptions, and triumphs of a village choir during World War II
As England becomes enmeshed in the early days of World War II and the men are away fighting, the women of Chilbury village forge an uncommon bond. They defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to close the choir and instead “carry on singing,” resurrecting themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. We come to know the home-front struggles of five unforgettable choir members: a timid widow devastated when her only son goes to fight; the older daughter of a local scion drawn to a mysterious artist; her younger sister pining over an impossible crush; a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret; and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past.
An enchanting ensemble story that shuttles from village intrigue to romance to the heartbreaking matters of life and death, Jennifer Ryan’s debut novel thrillingly illuminates the true strength of the women on the home front in a village of indomitable spirit.
Jennifer Ryan managed to include plenty of humor, thorough character development, detailed research and a well-structured plot line in one book. It often felt like I was reading a British soap opera.
Ryan really gathered some interesting personalities together to entertain her readers. You have a widow, whose only child is fighting in the war so she’s trying to funnel her energy into learning to be a midwife and help find residences for those in need. Her initial instincts demand she be a proper British woman but she has an independent streak demanding to be set free. There’s another character who has been a midwife for a while and has a decidedly darker moral code as she ran off with all of her sister’s money and boyfriend only for him to steal everything from her and run off, karma is a bitch! Apparently even the universe’s almighty punch to her life didn’t take as she’s been known to blackmail and hurt others over their secrets about everything from unplanned pregnancies to STDs. When you think she can’t sink any lower, she decides to expand her repertoire of crime to an extremely heinous act. There’s a teenager who wants to be a famous singer and travel. An abusive father and husband who treats his family like they’re animals to the point he raised a son who was following in his footsteps. That son was in the military and got blown up during the war much to the relief of the village who hated him. A young woman believes love is nothing more than a tool to use against men but she just might find herself on the losing end of that deal. A mysterious artist who has questionable ethics in a time of war.
There’s underlying humor that you won’t see coming as it seems like such a ‘prim and proper’ historical novel but it’s impossible to remain stoic when Ryan provides an image of a stuffy vicar suddenly scampering away from a female parishioner because he’d rather tuck tail and run than face a woman who scares him.
I also love the great moral lessons. There’s a part where the women start arguing among themselves about what they can or can’t do due to social conventions (remember this is pre-1970s feminism). One of them points out that they’ve started to believe that they can’t do things because they’ve been told that they can’t for such a long time they stopped questioning the validity of it. They began believing in themselves because they were already filling in jobs vacated by men who had gone off to fight in the war – just like in America. That belief in themselves created a winning future.
The historical background of WWII and Jewish oppression were used in a respectful manner which added a deeper layer to the motivations and actions of the characters. Ryan deftly created an entertaining story that shows the highs and lows of humanity.
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