While their men are off fighting the Nazis, the women in the English village of Chilbury struggle to carry on.
Though the action spans only a few months in 1940, a lot happens: there are bombings, a nefarious baby-swapping scheme, passionate love affairs, acts of espionage and of great valor. The Chilbury women, it seems, are always being tested. What binds them together and lifts their spirits is their participation in the local church choir, transformed with the advent of war from a coed chorus to an all-female one. The story is told through the women’s letters and journal entries, which can make for some clumsy exposition. Key figures include the sensible widow and nurse Mrs. Tilling, the scheming midwife Miss Paltry, Kitty Winthrop, a plucky, headstrong 13-year-old, and her older sister, Venetia, the town beauty and a heedless flirt until she falls hard for a secretive artist. All are borderline stock characters, and little that happens in the book is unexpected—though the brutality of Brig. Winthrop, Kitty and Venetia’s father, does come as a bit of a shock. The author also tends to tell rather than show: asked if she thinks that singing will help the women get through the war, the choir director answers, “Music takes us out of ourselves, away from our worries and tragedies….All those cadences and beautiful chord changes, every one of them makes you feel a different splendor of life.” Real tragedy visits the town, but it doesn’t fully register. And subplots involving homosexuality and abortion seem designed to make a period piece feel more contemporary. Still, the book is well-paced, especially in the second half, and readers may find themselves furiously turning pages even if they can easily predict what’s coming next.
Mildly entertaining, Ryan's debut novel seems overfamiliar and too intent on warming the heart.