Friday, February 24, 2017

The Chilbury Ladies' Choir

Title:  The Chilbury Ladies' Choir
Author:  Jennifer Ryan
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1101906758 / 978-1101906750

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "As all our male voices have gone to war, the village choir is to close following Cmdr. Edmund Winthrop's funeral next Tuesday."

Favorite Quote:  "Music is about passion. It's about humanity we need to bring our passions to our voices ... We have to imbue every note, every word, with our own stories."

World War II provides the context for this story set in the spring of 1940, but the war is not the story itself. The heart of this story are the women of the small village of Chilbury in Kent, England.
  • Mrs. Margaret Tilling is a widow, a mother of a soldier, and a nurse.
  • Ms. Edwina Paltry is a midwife looking to escape the drudgery of her life.
  • Venetia and Kitty Winthrop are the daughters of Chilbury Manor, the "big house" of the village.
  • Sylvie is a young Czech girl, who comes to the village as a Jewish refugee escaping Hitler's atrocities.
The story of Chilbury is told for the most part through their journals and letters. The war is part of the story as local men become soldiers, and as soldiers and spies come to the village. Amongst these men are colleagues, brothers, husbands, friends, and lovers. Love stories and heartbreak abound.

Small town living is also part of the story as the comings and goings of everyone are noted and very little escapes the notice of those paying attention. Rumors and gossip feed and alter the direction of many. Learning who and what to trust and who and what not to trust is a key element in the story.

Central to the book is the need of the aristocracy for a male heir. There must be a son. This facts leads to deals and machinations that reverberate throughout the village. This storyline touches most of the characters in the book. Beyond that though, each one of the women has her own story - loneliness, a crush, a hidden past, a crime, an unrequited love, a family and a home lost, and an incomplete love story.

Some of the story lines are a bit like a upstairs/downstairs soap opera - fun reading but with the possibility of being over the top. The context of the war, however, grounds the book and brings a seriousness to the melodrama. Somber scenes such as the funeral of a friend and the unenviable task of delivering bad wartime news adds a depth to the tale.

The beginning of the book is a little confusing because of the changing perspectives. The chapters rotate between the different women, and each chapter is written as a first person narrative - either a letter or journal entry. Each chapter title identifies the character whose perspective is reflected. At the beginning, I find myself referring back to ensure that I follow the correct line of sight. However, slowly, each character's voice and her portion of the story begins to stand apart and read uniquely. At that point, I settle into the story itself and these likable characters without need of that reference.

At that point, this story becomes about each woman finding her own individual voice and about learning that the voice can stand alone and can be heard. Each finds a strength that is slowly revealed through the ups and downs of her life. The end result is a charming story of women, love, and survival tempered by the somber circumstances.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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