“The Chilbury Ladies Choir” is a charming if occasionally awkward tale of life in a rural English village in early World War II.
“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir”
by Jennifer Ryan
Crown, 371 pp., $26
Jennifer Ryan’s “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir,” a charming if occasionally awkward tale of life in a rural English village in early World War II, has been optioned for television by the production company behind “Downton Abbey.” Reading it, I couldn’t stop playing casting director. Lily James (Cousin Rose from “Downton”) as the beautiful, impetuous Venetia? Helena Bonham Carter as unscrupulous midwife Edwina Palfrey? (Would somebody please name their band Unscrupulous Midwives?) Emma Thompson as kindhearted widow Mrs. Tilling, sending her only son off to fight? Clearly I am in the wrong profession.
It’s an enjoyable distraction while reading a book that’s as good as it needs to be, if only just. “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” has multiple narrators, heard through journal entries and letters to friends and family; most of them women, left behind in Chilbury while the men are overseas. The war has decimated the local church choir; hence the new group referenced in the title, and some musings from the characters about how music can bring us together in times of strife. The intertwining plot involves the usual fare — love triangles, an unexpected pregnancy, two people thrown together by war discovering romance — and a few somewhat less expected strands, such as a nefarious baby-switching plot (involving the U.M. and a local mustache-twirling brigadier who wants a son and is willing to pay for him).
Ryan, a Brit and former book editor now living in D.C., dedicates the novel — her first — to her grandmother, who told her stories of how the women on the Home Front “fought on through the bombs and the heartache.” The book has a genuine sweetness to it, one that lets the reader forgive the frequently stilted dialogue and occasionally too-flowery language. As we wait for the television series, “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” provides a pleasant read, punctuated with the occasional moment of gentle insight — such as how young David, heading off to war, seemed “like a fox gamboling into the hunt, half expecting to be caught, not thinking about how it all might end.”