“Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!”
As England enters World War II’s dark early days, spirited music professor Primrose Trent, recently arrived to the village of Chilbury, emboldens the women of the town to defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to shutter the church’s choir in the absence of men and instead “carry on singing.” Resurrecting themselves as “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir,” the women of this small village soon use their joint song to lift up themselves, and the community, as the war tears through their lives.
Told through letters and journals, THE CHILBURY LADIES’ CHOIR moves seamlessly from budding romances to village intrigues to heartbreaking matters of life and death. As we come to know the struggles of the charismatic members of this unforgettable outfit– a timid widow worried over her son at the front; the town beauty drawn to a rakish artist; her younger sister nursing an impossible crush and dabbling in politics she doesn’t understand; a young Jewish refugee hiding secrets about her family, and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past– we come to see how the strength each finds in the choir’s collective voice reverberates in her individual life. In turns funny, charming and heart-wrenching, this lovingly executed ensemble novel will charm and inspire, illuminating the true spirit of the women on the homefront, in a village of indomitable spirit, at the dawn of a most terrible conflict.
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Crown (February 14, 2017)
I read a lot of historical fiction set during World War II, It is a time period that I find interesting. I especially like novels that give me glimpses into civilian life in the different countries involved, so I was happy to be on the tour for The Chilbury Ladies' Choir. The book did not disappoint, it's a lovely story, told in a epistolary style through the journals, letters and documents of the main characters. Mrs. Tilling (a widowed nurse with a son recently sent to fight), Kitty Winthrop (a thirteen year-old who longs to be a singer and marry a childhood friend who is infatuated with her older sister) and Silvie (the ten-year-old Jewish Czech evacuee, staying with the Winthrop family) write in diaries and journals--the author mentions in her afterward that ordinary civilians were encouraged by an Organization called Mass Observation to document daily lives during the war. Kitty's older sister Venetia (eighteen and the town beauty) writes detailed letters to a friend in London and Miss Paltry (the local midwife and an opportunist and bit of a grifter) writes to her sister. These five relate the story of life in the village of Chilbury, and what happens when Miss Prim, a newly arrived music teacher helps them start a women's choir as their church choir, with the majority of the town's men off to war, has been shut down. The all-female choir is shocking proposal for some, but soon even the reluctant members are coming together in song.
If this sounds at all sleepy and boring, it isn't. There is plenty of intrigue going on in this small village and in addition to the main characters, we get to see both the joys and the heartaches of many of the villagers in this time of war. There are dark dealings, births, deaths, and romance in the six months in 1940 that we spend with Chilbury. I really enjoyed the different voices and perspectives--some characters likable, some not, and some both grew as individuals and even grew on me. The 380-some pages flew by and I found myself sad to leave this group of women. (There's a great Read It Forward article by Jennifer Ryan where she "explores" the village of Chilbury here.) If you like epistolary novels, historical fiction and unique takes on life during WWII, and books with strong female characters, you will surely enjoy this one.
Author Notes: Jennifer Ryan lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband and their two children. Originally from Kent and then London, she was previously a nonfiction book editor.
You can connect with Jennifer on her website or Facebook.
There is food to be found in The Chilbury Ladies' Choir even during the war and the rationing for food. (Here's an interesting article on food rationing in Britain from the BBC if you are interested in learning more.) There were sandwiches--jam sandwiches, and several mentions of cucumber sandwiches with tea. Tea was also served biscuits, cake, porridge, and scones with strawberry jam. There were mentions of cod--baked cod and a fish supper and "a slap round the face with a freshly caught cod." There are mentions of sherry and stale cheese straws served at a party, potatoes for dinner, vegetable gardens and a large leek dug from the garden in Hattie's kitchen. A simple dinner of scrambled eggs that the Colonel cooks for Mrs. Tillings and another dinner of oxtail soup and bread and butter. There was a hidden jar of honey that tasted of rose petals and syrupy sweetness, a chestnut tree, cherry blossoms and a peachy perfume, and chocolate. There was soup and good food like eggs and bacon, meat and fruits to nurse Venetia back to health. There were also memories of non-war time foods too; cocktails at the Ritz and picnics full of pies, cherries and French madeleines and some traditional British fare like roast pheasant and Spotted Dick.
For my book-inspired dish, I decided to combine the leek from Hattie's house, with the dinner of scrambled eggs that the Colonel cooks. While looking for inspiration for eggs scrambled with leeks, I saw a simple recipe for Scrambled Eggs with Leek and Tomato on a UK Co-Op site and since I had a locally-grown Roma tomato that needed to be used, along with a couple of leeks and local eggs, it seemed like a great match.
Scrambled Eggs with Leek and Tomato
Adapted from TheCo-op.com
salt and black pepper to taste
1 Tbsp butter or olive oil
1 medium leek, white and light green parts trimmed and thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, halved (I used Roma tomatoes)
4 slices bread of choice (I used 1 slice of sprouted wheat bread per serving), toasted
In a small bowl, whisk eggs with sea salt and black pepper. Toast bread.
Place butter or oil in a frying pan over medium heat. When hot, add the thinly-sliced leeks and halved tomatoes, cut side down. Cook for about 5 minutes, until leeks are soft, stirring so as not to burn them. Turn tomatoes over after about 3 minutes, once they are lightly browned and softened on the cut side. Once tomatoes are cooked, remove them from the pan and set them aside.
Distribute the leeks evenly in the pan and pour the eggs over the leeks, cooking them about 2-3 minutes, stirring them with a spatula and scrambling them until the eggs are set and they reach the desired consistency/doneness.
Plate toast with eggs on top and tomatoes on the side. Enjoy!
Notes/Results: This made a perfect light dinner, as the scrambled eggs were in the book but would be equally welcome at breakfast or lunch. The leeks are sweet and mellow and get the scrambled eggs a little something extra and the tomatoes add their sweetness and a pop of color on the plate. I made a single serving--two extra-large local eggs and one leek and one local Roma tomato and just used one slice of toast. I have another leek in my veggie drawer and if it doesn't find its way into the soup pot, I'll happily make this again tonight.
I'm linking this post up to the Weekend Cooking event at Beth Fish Reads, a weekly event that is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. For more information, see the welcome post.
Note: A review copy of the "The Chilbury Ladies' Choir" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours. I was not compensated for this review and as always, my thoughts and opinions are my own.
You can see the stops for the rest of this TLC Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.