Tag Archives: social change

“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan AND Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”

This book reminded me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Shaffer and Barrows, published in 2009. Each novel consists of a series of letters, diary entries and notices. Ryan’s novel seemed less “spontaneous” than Guernsey. Would anyone really write such wildly uninhibited letters?? But both novels, each dealing with British civilian life during World War II, make good reading.

The church choir in the village of Chilbury is deactivated when too few men are left in town to sing tenor and bass. The Ladies Choir’ takes its place, at first tentatively and then with vigor. Chilbury is located next to a city named Litchfield Park, possibly meant to resemble Bletchley Park, where Britain’s crucially important code breakers were headquartered.

Yes, there’s a spy among the characters. He turns out NOT to be a villain. Ryan creates interesting villains. One is predictable, a military man (a brigadier) who bullies his family and neighbors. But another is a midwife! (See my blog entry of May 24, 2018 about midwives in fiction.) The brigadier and the midwife enter into a nefarious scheme to insure a male heir for the brigadier. Other plots unfold. Many important characters are children and adolescents. Ryan depicts the impact of war on their young lives very realistically.

Ryan’s plotting is uninhibited – she throws in complications fast and furious. I couldn’t stop reading! One of my favorite characters was Kitty, the third child of the brigadier. At 13, she’s full of energy and curiosity, headlong and rambunctious and confused by the War and it’s impacts. She reaches out to other children and also to adults as she struggles to cope. There are enough interesting characters in this book to make me hope for a sequel. After all, the Battle of Britain has barely started!

What’s this got to do with Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night”? I attended a discussion of the play recently. Remember the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated after a shipwreck? Viola disguises herself as a man, and is mistaken for her brother, who she fears is dead. Love at first sight strikes several characters, and giddy confusions ensues. Our discussion leader pointed out that “Twelfth Night” has a subtitle, namely “What You Will”. Our starting discussion question was “Is love something you WILL, or is it something that happens to you?” Great question! We talked for over an hour. Do you choose to love? Does reason play any role in love? No, we didn’t reach a conclusion.

In The Chilbury Ladies Choir, Jennifer Ryan depicts characters to whom love “happened”. They weren’t “looking for love”, but were taken by surprise. There are two couples, one young but sophisticated, the other older and burdened with sorrows. For each of these four people, love is a dangerous path.

The person who recommended this book to me said it was about music. This aspect was handled lightly and deftly, with occasional references to hymns and choral performances. Two other themes are change and leadership.

This book rises well above the “chick lit” or “beach reading” category. I’d classify it as high quality historical fiction. The echoes of World War I are important. Read and enjoy, but remember, war is hell.

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“A Dubious Legacy” by Mary Wesley

The person who loaned me this book said it was “funny”. Usually I would ask “What kind of funny?” since there are so many possibilities, but I was distracted. So I jumped into the book without preconceptions.

Is there a category of “over the top” fiction? Everything seems exaggerated, a little extreme, often in ways that are indeed hilarious.

Analogy: Recently I took a colorful photograph of a brightly colored insect. Fooling around with the “edit” function on my cell phone camera, I discovered color adjustment settings called “vivid” and “dramatic”. I would say that Mary Wesley writes in those two settings. The net effect is slightly manic but loads of fun. Yes, this is entertaining modern fiction.

A Dubious Legacy is set in post World War II England. Another categorization would be “comedy of manners”. A group of young adults congregate in the country home/farm of Henry B, whose eccentric wife dominates the book without being “present” very often.

A Dubious Legacy makes it clear why Women’s Liberation (one descriptive term of many…) emerged in the 1960s. The men of the 1950s (as described by Wesley) were insufferable jerks and it’s amazing any marriages survived at all. Wesley has fun turning the career “issue” upside down. The young women WANT to marry, while their parents, tempered by the Depression and World War II, want their daughters to go to work, even at tedious jobs.

A Dubious Legacyreminded me of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, which everyone liked except me. A group is followed for years, generations. I found Commonwealth unbearably grim. Yes, life includes suffering. Did these people have to suffer SO MUCH? I like Wesley’s lighter touch so much better. Some people and situations could have been more fully explored, but I understand Wesley started writing late in life, driven to it by financial pressure. So I’m willing to suspend criticism and enjoy her madcap story telling.