Chilbury is a small English village not far from the coast. Almost all of the men have left the village to fight, leaving behind a village of women and children. When the local vicar disbands the church choir effective immediately after the funeral of the Winthrop's only heir due to the absence of male voices, the women of the village push back. Prim, the new music tutor, transforms the choir into a ladies' choir and the women of the village come together, outside of the usual gossip, rivalries, and other concerns large and small, through the music they sing. They draw together as a caring community, being comforted in their uncertain everyday lives and when faced with the terrors that war inflicts on them, through the beautiful harmonies and the powerful feelings that they stir.
The village and the people in it are not without their intrigues, scheming, and drama and the novel captures these charmingly through letters and diaries. There is an ensemble cast of characters, just as the women form an ensemble choir, who tell the majority of the story. Kitty Winthrop is thirteen going on fourteen, and she chronicles life as a girl on the cusp of young womanhood. She is observant and notices more than many but she is also blinded by a naive lack of understanding in the ways of the human heart, confiding in her diary what her family life is like, her adoration of one of the village sons, and the goings on of those around her. Venetia Winthrop, Kitty's older sister and a flirtatious young woman fully cognizant of her own power, writes letters to an old friend who has moved to London to work for the war effort. At least to start, Venetia is selfish and concerned with bending circumstances to her will, including making the enigmatic artist who has moved into their midst and claims to be exempt from the war by virtue of flat feet fall in love with her. Mrs. Tilling is the local nurse and a timid widow whose only son is leaving for the war, leaving her alone so that she must learn to fend for herself. Her journal entries are those of a frightened mother who must find a way to banish the fear and uncertainty, recognize her own inherent strength, and step up in whatever way the war will require. Edwina Paltry is the village midwife whose methods bring her into opposition with Mrs. Tilling's medical training. Edwina is a fairly unscrupulous opportunist and her letters to her sister detailing her schemes and filled with disdain for those around her are entertaining. These four women's writings tell the bulk of the story although an occasional piece from another character sneaks into the narrative as well.
The novel has a quiet dignity to it. It shows the women (and remaining men) as they face the war with determination even as their smaller, but no less personally important, domestic dramas continue to pull at them. The large cast of characters is people with characters who are all vibrant and alive, some good, some bad, and some still growing. The various plot threads and the four main narrators are all evenly balanced so that the reader is happy no matter which letter, or diary she is reading at any given time. And the novel has everything: love and death, heartbreak and friendship, community, service, and rivalries. Taking place over a mere 6 months in 1940, the story is a touching encapsulation of the daily life, the sacrifices, and the character, courage, and mettle of the country in a time of great strife and danger and fear. Readers who enjoy cozy stories or epistolary novels, those who are attracted to tales of the home front during WWII, and those who want to read touching stories, full of heart, will thrill to this delightful novel.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and Crown for sending me a copy of this book to review.