The Chilbury Ladies' Choir

The Chilbury Ladies' Choir

by Jennifer Ryan


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The Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan


“A delightful debut.”—People 

For readers of Lilac Girls and The Nightingale, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir unfolds the struggles, affairs, deceptions, and triumphs of a village choir during World War II.

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.
An enchanting ensemble story that shuttles from village intrigue to romance to the heartbreaking matters of life and death, Jennifer Ryan’s debut novel thrillingly illuminates the true strength of the women on the home front in a village of indomitable spirit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101906750
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 02/14/2017
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

JENNIFER RYAN lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband and two children. Originally from Kent and then London, she was previously a nonfiction book editor.

Read an Excerpt


Tuesday, 26th March, 1940

First funeral of the war, and our little village choir simply couldn’t sing in tune. “Holy, holy, holy” limped out as if we were a crump of warbling sparrows. But it wasn’t because of the war, or the young scoundrel Edmund Winthrop torpedoed in his submarine, or even the Vicar’s abysmal conducting. No, it was because this was the final performance of the Chilbury Choir. Our swan song.

“I don’t see why we have to be closed down,” Mrs. B. snapped afterward as we congregated in the foggy graveyard. “It’s not as if we’re a threat to national security.”

“All the men have gone,” I whispered back, aware of our voices carrying uncomfortably through the funeral crowd. “The Vicar says we can’t have a choir without men.”

“Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely at a time when we need it most! I mean, what’ll he disband next? His beloved bell ringers? Church on Sundays? Christmas? I expect not!” She folded her arms in annoyance. “First they whisk our men away to fight, then they force us women into work, then they ration food, and now they’re closing our choir. By the time the Nazis get here there’ll be nothing left except a bunch of drab women ready to surrender.”

“But there’s a war on,” I said, trying to placate her loud complaining. “We women have to take on extra work, help the cause. I don’t mind doing hospital nurse duties, although it’s busy keeping up the village clinic, too.”

“The choir has been part of the Chilbury way since time began. There’s something bolstering about singing together.” She puffed her chest out, her large, square frame like an abundant Field Marshall.

The funeral party began to head to Chilbury Manor for the obligatory glass of sherry and cucumber sandwich. “Edmund Winthrop,” I sighed. “Only twenty and blown up in the North Sea.”

“He was a vicious bully, and well you know it,” Mrs. B. barked. “Remember how he tried to drown your David in the village pond?”

“Yes, but that was years ago,” I whispered. “In any case, Edmund was bound to be unstable with his father forever thrashing him. I’m sure Brigadier Winthrop must be feeling more than a trace of regret now that Edmund’s dead.”

Or clearly not, I thought as we looked over to him, thwacking his cane against his military boot, the veins on his neck and forehead livid with rage.

“He’s furious because he’s lost his heir,” Mrs. B. snipped. “The Winthrops need a male to inherit, so the family estate is lost. He doesn’t care a jot about the daughters—” We glanced over at young Kitty and the beautiful Venetia. “Status is everything. At least Mrs. Winthrop’s pregnant again. Let’s hope it’s a boy this time round.”

Mrs. Winthrop was cowering like a crushed sparrow under the weight of Edmund’s loss. It could be me next, I thought, as my David came over, all grown up in his new army uniform. His shoulders are broader since training, but his smile and softness are just the same. I knew he’d sign up when he turned eighteen, but why did it happen so fast? He’s being sent to France next month, and I can’t help worrying how I’ll survive if anything happens to him. He’s all I have since Harold passed away. Edmund and David often played as boys, soldiers or pirates, some kind of battle that Edmund was sure to win. I can only pray that David’s fight doesn’t end the same way.

The war has been ominously quiet so far, Hitler busy taking the rest of Europe. But I know they’re coming, and soon we’ll be surrounded by death. It’ll be like the last war, when a whole generation of men was wiped out, my own father included. I remember the day the telegram came. We were sitting down for luncheon, the sun spilling into the dining room as the gramophone played Vivaldi. I heard the front door open, then the slump of my mother’s body as she hit the floor, the sunshine streaming in, unaware.

Now our lives are going into turmoil all over again: more deaths, more work, more making do. And our lovely choir gone, too. I’ve half a mind to write to the Vicar in protest. But then again, I probably won’t. I’ve never been one to make a fuss. My mother told me that women do better when they smile and agree. Yet sometimes I feel so frustrated by everything. I just want to shout it out.

I suppose that’s why I started a journal, so that I can express the things I don’t want to say out loud. A program on the wireless said that keeping a journal can help you feel better if you have loved ones away, so I popped out yesterday and bought one. I’m sure it’ll be filled up soon, especially once David leaves and I’m on my own, thoughts surging through my head with nowhere to be let out. I’ve always dreamed of being a writer, and I suppose this is the closest I’ll get.

Taking David’s arm and following the crowd to Chilbury Manor, I looked back at the crumbling old church. “I’ll miss the choir.”

To which Mrs. B. roundly retorted, “I haven’t seen you instructing the Vicar to reverse his decision.”

“But, Mrs. B.,” David said with a smirk. “We always leave it up to you to make a stink about everything. You usually do.”

I had to hide my smile behind my hand, waiting for Mrs. B.’s wrath. But at that moment, the Vicar himself flew past us, trotting at speed after the Brigadier, who was striding up to the Manor.

Mrs. B. took one look, seized her umbrella with grim determination, and began stomping after him, calling, “I’ll have a word with you, Vicar,” her usual forthright battle cry.

The Vicar turned and, seeing her gaining pace, sprinted for all he was worth.

Reading Group Guide

In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessaryto reveal certain aspects of the story in this novel. If you have not finished reading The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, we respectfully suggest that you do so before reviewing this guide.

1. What is the main theme of the book? Which of the characters is most changed through the course of the book?

2. Which character do you like most? Why? Which character do you like most? Why?

3. Which character do you most relate to? Why?

4. What was the funniest moment of the book? Why do you think it was funny?

5. Do you think that Mrs. Tilling made the right choice to help Carrington, even though it would have been illegal for her not to have handed him over to the police? A great deal has happened since the Second World War in this regard. What does that say about the society and culture in which we live?

6. In what way does Venetia alter through the course of the book? What are the biggest moments of change for her?

7. Why doesn’t Mrs. Tilling hand Miss Paltry over to the police? Why is she being nice to her?

8. What does it say about the way her character has changed over the course of the book? Would you have handed her in?

9. Are there any recurrent symbols throughout the book? Why do you think they were chosen?

10. Are there any allusions to other books hidden throughout? What are they, and why are they relevant?

11. Did you feel for Venetia’s dilemma after Slater left? In what ways have times would her choice have been easier today? Why do you think that is?

12. Tragically, we already know what will probably happen to Silvie’s parents, even though none of the characters do at this point. How does that affect you when reading the book?

13. What impact did the war have on women, work, and society? How do you think women’s equality has progressed since the Second World War?

14. And now, a show of hands: did you shed a few tears while reading Chilbury? Be honest now, there are some sad and very moving parts. Which did you find most heartrending, and why?

Customer Reviews

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The Chilbury Ladies' Choir 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Diary format made it an interesting read! Had to read a few entries of diaries to get into it but once in, could not put down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
With the state our government is in today we would all do well to remember the past. A touching reminder of life during WWII and in a totally different vein how far we women have come...though we still have far to go...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The good and the bad band together in a delightful character-driven novel during the early days of the Battle of Britain. We see how the war brings out the best and worst of the women in the small village of Chilbury, and changes them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm well into my 60s and have to say this book was a refreshing change for me. This is the only book I've read by this author and a great interpretation of life in the U.K near the beginning of WW2. Great read without any swearing. An easy read in diary and Jornal format. Nice break from my usual heavy reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great story! Loved the characters !
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings A book told through letters, journal entries and so on was such a new inventive way to approach the subject of World War II and set in a small town that is on the outskirts, but close enough to have fear of the impending doom. I would say it was hard to keep all the ladies straight from the Chilbury Ladies' Choir and make sure I could remember who was who and what was what. It may have been harder given the style of the book, but in the same moment I loved how it was written. I read this one slower because I took a minute at the beginning of each chapter to remember who was talking and where they were coming from. I loved that the characters varied in age and station in life so you saw the full view of the village.
gaele More than 1 year ago
Chilbury is a small village in Kent, with all of the dramas, intrigues and community that one would expect. But there’s one small hiccup: at the onset of war, the Vicar has decided that the choir, now bereft of male voices because of the volunteers and call ups, will be disbanded until the “boys come home”. This becomes the story of the women of the choir, and their efforts to keep that one bit of community alive in a time when they feel it is most necessary, despite the lack of support from their vicar. Told in a series of letters and diary entries, this story is not wonderful because of the ‘newness’ of the subject, nor are the characters we meet full of bonhomie and good will. These are ordinary women, faced with extraordinary circumstances and changes that rock the foundations of all they know, as they struggle to survive and support the war effort from home. Thrust into positions that they are unprepared for, these women are learning as they go: running households, farms, shops and their communities. This doesn’t make them saints, they all have a solid streak of ‘get on with it, even as they all show they are human and subject to worries, cares and uncharitable thoughts. What emerges is a highly personalized version of those left behind during the war: the struggles they faced, the personal challenges they overcame and the knowledge gained that forever changed them, and their country. Each character is carefully developed and explored: you hear their voices, you can picture their lives and worries, and a full image of the story and the moments arise with the author’s careful insertions of history, scenery and people. A book that draws you in and demands attention, yet allows you to savor the moments, reveling as if on a quiet bench looking on. I’ve read it 3 times in the six months I’ve had it available, and just want to dive back in again! If you enjoy a quieter and subtly complex story that introduces characters, conflicts, resolutions and community with equal attention paid, this is the book for you. Certainly one of my favorites for the year. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
Anonymous 6 months ago
I loved this book. the characters became real for me, and I am already writing sequels in my mind. Wonder if Ryan plans to follow any of the characters.
stickerooniDM More than 1 year ago
The Chilbury Ladies' Choir is a stunning, beautiful historical fiction novel. With the men of England off to war - a war that is too often seen near their own homes - the women of Chilbury defy a local Vicar's decree that the church choir should be silenced until the men return and instead use the power of their voices to lift up, and entertain the community. They are emboldened when they enter a competition of local choirs and come away with a trophy. But the book isn't about the choir as a unit, but it is about community and about the individuals who make up the choir and author Jennifer Ryan manages to bring us in and close to a number of different individuals who experience a series of trials and joys during these days of war (WWII). The book is written as a series of letters, journal entries, and other forms of non-narrative storytelling (such as newspaper or flyer posts). Normally I don't enjoy books done in this manner, finding the story-telling to be disjointed and un-focused. But author Jennifer Ryan has managed to tell this story so smoothly that in thinking back on the book, I'm remembering the characters and the story but it was only when I reopened the book that I was reminded of the method of the story-telling. Because of the method of story-telling, Ryan was able to get us directly into the heads of the different characters as they relayed their thoughts and desires and concerns in a straight-forward manner. Ryan also gives us different perspectives on the same issues as different people write about what is happening in the town. I was really impressed with how much I related with this diverse group of characters - the majority of them women (given that I am a middle age male). I cared about them. I got caught up in their lives. I wanted to keep reading about them when I was finished with the book. Often we read a book and get an interesting or well-told tale. This book drew me and made me FEEL and that's precisely what you want in a book. This is highly recommended. Looking for a good book? The Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan is an absorbing historical fiction story that will have you believing you know these characters personally. It is worth reading! I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Sandy5 More than 1 year ago
I listened to this on audio which carried a deep accent. I liked that these women at first thought they couldn’t carry on because their men were off fighting in the war (WWII) but later decided, heck yeah…. we can do it! A thought erupts about forming a choir but the women contemplate how they can do that without the men? A choir with just women? What shall they sing without the men’s voices? I had to laugh as they pondered this idea. The novel is told using a variety of transcripts from journals to letters to newspapers clippings. These women were determined to carry on in life without their men. I liked how the women bicker, how they encourage one another and how they still keep their separate opinions. There was Mrs. Tilling who kept her nose in everything and I liked her. This was an interesting and fun novel to listen to.
SherreyM More than 1 year ago
Fall in love with the Chilbury Ladies' Choir Reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Shaffer and Annie Barrows, the story written by Jennifer Ryan in The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is similarly based on letters and diary and journal entries. Through these epistles written by Ryan’s characters we are told a story of a group of women who dared to take on their church vicar who thought the choir should disband since there were no men left to sing the male voice parts. Led by a strong-willed music professor in the character of Primrose Trent, the women come together and through shared effort and struggles The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is born during the early days of World War II in England. Fears, apprehension, and loneliness mark the women’s days and their letter and journal entries. Drawing the women together into the choir creates a community of support and encouragement. Fears are shared. The pain of missing sons who have left for war can be talked about with other mothers. Wives can share their struggles without their husbands at home. And then there is the joy of the music–bring lovely sounds to the air when all else seems to be fall at their feet. Ryan develops her characters to the fullest. These characters are realistic, each with a unique personality. Some characters may clash from time to time, but all in all the women basically get along and help one another in times of need. The book is based on the author’s grandmother’s stories of a choir she sang with during World War II, and stories of the freedoms women had because of the war. Ryan’s début novel blends humor, warmth, sorrow and depth in a sensitive and beautiful way. If you read and enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Society and Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, you will enjoy reading The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. The women and their stories will stay with you for days to come. *** Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing a review copy.
Mirella More than 1 year ago
The Chilbury Ladies Choir is a heartwarming novel set in England during World War II. It is an epistolary novel told through letters and journal entries of several women in the town of Chilbury. What is most charming are the unique personalities of the characters - the widow, the busybody, the refugee, and more. With all the men gone to war, they are forced to recreate their choir as "Ladies Only". There are secrets, romances, triumphs, and great sadness too which takes the reader on a continual roller coaster of emotion. I am not surprised that this book has reached national bestseller status. It is sure to please!
ChattyPat More than 1 year ago
What A Splendid Novel This ensemble tale of a diverse, fascinating group of women – young and old - introduced to you by Jennifer Ryan, are not only dealing with the looming terror of WW 2 in their small village of Chilbury, but their hopes, loves, losses, strengths and weaknesses. All in times when it wasn’t fashionable for women to show strength and ability to cope in their own way with difficulty. These women will draw you in to their lives and make you care for them, make you feel their joys and sorrows – and it will do so with ease. It will make you feel the joy of what music can accomplish, how music can sooth and encourage souls, both shattered and whole. What a well written story this is. I found it hard to put this book down, and spent far more time during the night reading than I should have spent sleeping. It’s sheer delight to discover a novel like this and I can not wait to see what else unfolds from the mind of this author.
ksnapier475 More than 1 year ago
The Chilbury Ladies' ChoirSet during World War II, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir shares the story of quiet English town. When the men are sent to war the vicar decides that the choir should be discontinued. However, a few of the women fought to keep the choir for the women. It is seen as a way to help raise spirits, share emotions and provide support and development. Throughout the story we meet the different women through letters, journal entries and diaries. The author, Jennifer Ryan, uses these entries to show the warmth, schemes, wit, romance and adventures the women are in the midst. Each of the characters were portrayed in such a way that I could understand the pressures each of them felt. There were the role models, those looking for love or financial security, and those that are looking for ways to set themselves up for a better life. I felt like this novel gives a good look at what women's lives were like at this time, including the challenges and how music and the choir became inspirations, a way to handle grief and more to each of the characters. I feel like this book would be enjoyable to anyone who reads it. I was given this book by Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.
Honolulubelle More than 1 year ago
Favorite Quotes: It was the funeral of Edmund Winthrop, the Brigadier’s despicable son who was blown up in a submarine last week. Only twenty he was – one minute a repulsive reptile, the next a feast for the fishes. As the place became full, the gnome-like Bishop of Litchfield walked to the front and asked for quiet in strong nasal tones, making me think that his wire spectacles were too tight. Of course Venetia made sure she was center stage, hair perfect, which was funny as she was standing beside Mrs. Gibbs, who looked like an unhinged hen, with coats and scarves at all angles and hair like a bird’s nest. ‘I’ve always had a notion that marriage is not unlike getting a new hound,’ she said to me, loudly and in an instructional way. ‘It takes a lot of whipping them into shape before you can get them to do what they’re told.’ She slapped her thigh with enthusiasm, and I had to purse my lips to stop myself from hooting with laughter. He’d never used my name before, and it made me feel strange, like he was talking to the real me, the one inside, not the one who rushes around cheering people up and making things better. She smiled in a way I don’t think I’d ever seen – not like her usual caring smile, or her polite smile, but a whole deeper level of smile, as if radiating a force of sunlight breaking through a stormy sky. My Review: I snickered, giggle-snorted, and laughed aloud as I read this delightfully amusing, insightful, and heart-squeezing tale featuring a small village in 1940 England. Everyone living in this village appeared to be uniquely quirky and colorfully detailed. The storyline sings and zings as it unfolds through the letters and journal entries of the various choir members and residents. The main narrators were the lusty and saucy Venetia, the crafty and conniving midwife Edwina, the vivacious thirteen-year-old Kitty - bustling with self-importance and colorful observations, and meek Mrs. Tilling who finally finds her backbone when others have crumbled. I just had to love Venetia, she considered herself an empress – I kid you not! I relished and adored each and every word chronicling these oddly flawed and endlessly endearing women as they bristle over the pompous and obnoxious entitled behavior of the village elite, bond and draw strength from each other during grief and despair, and through their choir, they each find their voice - inside and outside. But sadly, it is wartime, bombs are dropping, and not everyone survives. I had a chicken-skin reaction when the choir was forced to sing acapella during their first competition due to a power outage. The writing hit all the right notes and was first class, smartly done, poignant, cleverly amusing, and unfailingly engaging. I adored it!
PierresFamily More than 1 year ago
The Chilbury Ladies' Choir is Jennifer Ryan's wonderfully moving tale of neighbors who band together during World World II. They not only provide music that uplifts spirits, but also friendship and support during a difficult time when England was being bombed by Nazi Germany. My only complaint would be the modern political attitudes that were unnecessarily inserted into the story; for example, the WWII Survivors that I know and those that I have read of, weren't really thinking about how women must submit to men, nor how much better off the world would be if women led it. Rather, they were mostly concerned with survival and keeping their homes and communties going while the men were away. To the author's credit, she did deal a lot with the latter issues, as well. The friendships and love relationships were touching, and the story was told in a very readable format of journal entries and letters of the well-developed and believeable characters. Since this book ended in 1940, with four remaining years of war, I hope there will be a sequel!
PierresFamily More than 1 year ago
The Chilbury Ladies' Choir is Jennifer Ryan's wonderfully moving tale of neighbors who band together during World World II. They not only provide music that uplifts spirits, but also friendship and support during a difficult time when England was being bombed by Nazi Germany. My only complaint would be the modern political attitudes that were unnecessarily inserted into the story; for example, the WWII Survivors that I know and those that I have read of, weren't really thinking about how women must submit to men, nor how much better off the world would be if women led it. Rather, they were mostly concerned with survival and keeping their homes and communties going while the men were away. To the author's credit, she did deal a lot with the latter issues, as well. The friendships and love relationships were touching, and the story was told in a very readable format of journal entries and letters of the well-developed and believeable characters. Since this book ended in 1940, with four remaining years of war, I hope there will be a sequel!
VillaSyl More than 1 year ago
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir opens in March 1940 in the English village of Chilbury. The story is primarily told through the diaries and letters of five women, although there are some other voices heard along the way. When most of the local men go off to war, the local vicar decides to disband the church choir. Jennifer Ryan has written a moving story about the way the start of World War II affected a village near the coast of Britain. Using the letters and journals of four main characters, Ryan humanizes history, using a mixture of humor, horror, pathos, and the banality of evil. We learn about the social and political forces in town through choir members' letters and journal writings. Ryan’s choice of telling this story through 4 or 5 individual letters and diaries brings too many voices and can be confusing, which leads to no one character becoming worthy of our attention. Ryan uses a mixed first- and third-person narrative, but with the narrator shifting every few pages, it becomes confusing. Another way, in which this novel fails, is that her characters are flat caricatures. None of them have any depth and they never become real. There are some characters that could be real, but no time is spent or attention to make them interesting. I thought a story about a choir and WWII would be fascinating but was disappointed. If you don’t mind 5 different voices moving the story you may be able to get through it. I received a copy of the eBook from Crown Publishing and Net Galley for my review.
mkdmom More than 1 year ago
I received a ARC of this book from Net Galley for an honest review. I have always been a fan of historical fiction, especially novels set during WWII, so I was excited to read and review this book. What a wonderful story. Told through the point of view of four main characters using their journals, diaries, and letters we learn of a small English village at the onset of the war. I enjoy reading books that use this means to tell a story...very engaging and a great way to feel like you "know" the characters. Unlike recent books I've read set in this time period, this book dwelt more on the women in the town and how they banded together to make it through the hard times, rather than a book that examines the horrors of war. Not to say that there were not heartbreaking developments in the story, but it was more a story of female empowerment and awakening. Highly recommend for fans of women's fiction and/or historical fiction.
MaureenST More than 1 year ago
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is a series of letters and journal entries that capture a time from March to August 1940 in a small English Village, and a time that we all know now is the advancement of Germany in Europe. We meet the people of the village and what they are going though during this period, and learn history at the same time, guess I was not aware that England was being bombed at this era. A lot does happen here in this quaint town and we quickly turn pages to find answers, so of which we are not going to be happy about. These people are really open about their feelings and speak very openly in their written words, and we feel like we are watching them in real life. You are going to really like some of these individuals and others walk on the shady side, and I had to chuckle at the end of the book about one of them. A real eye opener of life in England prior to America getting into WWII, and yes I remember that Pearl Harbor awakened a sleeping giant, and the German’s must have been cringing when that happened. I received this book through Blogging For Books, and was not required to give a positive review.