Epistolary Novel: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

Those of us who like to read epistolary novels often look high and low, often in vain: there simply aren’t that many stories told through diaries and/or letters.  Fortunately, debut author Jennifer Ryan has taken on the challenge with The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, a novel set in a small English village during World War II.  Call it “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” or simply call it a story of the home front – like Jane Austen’s novels, it will probably be wrongly pigeonholed. Ryan’s astute sense of characterization and sense of humor combine in a series of intertwined stories that manage to be both funny and moving at the same time.

The tie that binds all of the plot lines together is both a story of its own and a metaphor for the book’s theme: how does one “keep on singing” when life has descended into chaos?  As the war takes the men from the village of Chilbury, the local vicar terminates the church choir, to the fury of the local women, who reassemble themselves and continue to rehearse and perform by themselves. With sons and lovers away at the front, the women are left to decipher daily-to-day living, changes in social norms, and the tragedies of the war by themselves.  Hilarity ensues, but so does sadness, resolve, and, unsurprisingly, romance.

The “main character” is the town and the battle for its character; there are of course the normal tropes of British situation comedy, such as the upstanding battle-axe who attempts to wield control over the other women in the town.  There’s also the Jewish war refugee who has seen and knows too much and a society family with secrets, as well as a pair of sisters, one a flighty flirt and the other a talented bookworm. A con artist not quite able to make things happen rounds out the cast of characters; to Ryan’s credit, all of these start out as stereotypes but morph into realized people as we get to know them through their words.

It’s truly amazing to witness how important letters were before television and technology.  These are voluptuous, well-written missives, whether meant for others to read or to be hidden inside a diary, each of them in a different tone of voice appropriate to the author.  As the book goes on, it’s easy to forget that all of it is a fictionalized account written by one woman.

The book ends with a short memoir by the author that explains her inspiration for the novel – the shared memories of her grandmother.  The warm, familial feeling of the novel is further extended by the inclusion of a selection of family recipes and a short ‘tour’ of Chilbury, which is an invented town but certainly seems real to the reader by the end of the book.  A compelling and touching read!

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with the author and purchased this novel with my own funds.

 

Ryan, Jennifer.  The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.  Broadway Books,  New York,  2016.  ISBN: 978-1-101-90677-4

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