I admit, I have a weakness for WWII stories. I also have a weakness for stories about scrappy English villages coming together in the face of adversity, a la something you’d see on Masterpiece on PBS, as well as stories about music and choirs. So despite my friend wrinkling her nose when I told her about Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, I was quite excited to start it, especially after my disappointing go with my previous book.
“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.” (Once again, Amazon’s description is quite perfect. I’ll stop relying on them, I promise, but I couldn’t describe it better this time.)
Sounds lovely, right? And it is lovely. And totally expected. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Ryan has clearly done a ton of research and writes beautifully and lovingly. I deeply appreciate the accuracy of her language around the music and the choir. Voice parts are accurately described, the musical language is mostly correctly, and the rehearsal process seems on point. (It is worth noting that not all authors writing about music pay attention to these things.) The characters are, for the most part, fully-realized and individual (and some a bit tiresome, though authentically so), and each one has their part to play in the narrative. I did feel that the “conniving midwife” of the blurb above felt the most out of place. She was certainly the most unlikable, but what I really struggled with was that her part of the story was there to create drama and tension, but that drama and tension felt artificial and not necessary or in keeping with the rest of the story.
That mis-characterization aside, what really shines in this story are the relationships among the women in the choir and the way music becomes a balm and therapy for them as they deal with the very close and very real horrors of war. I think Ryan must have been a part of a women’s choir, or at least a mixed choir. She writes about the importance of the choir to these women and their community as if she herself has experienced both the intense joy of creating a beautiful choral experience with others and the friendships that come from that. And I like that because I have, too. I have been in choirs my whole life, and some of my most important experiences and friends come from those choirs.
Like I said, this is a very lovely, expected, comforting book, but call me sentimental: I liked it. I don’t think it’s for everyone. I think some will be bored by it. I don’t think it’s a major entry in to that ever-growing subgenre of WWII fiction. But I think those of you who know and appreciate music and making music with others will be happy to spend some time with the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.