Kate Lord Brown’s The Beauty Chorus covers a very important topic, in my opinion: the role of the female pilots, “esp. beautiful thrill-seeking debutantes,” of the Air Transport Auxiliary Unit in World War II. They were rather dismissively labelled “The Beauty Chorus” yet served an important, vital role in transporting planes to war-torn areas. In one scene, a couple of the female ATA pilots are laughing at a Hollywood image of them as glamourous, when the reality is that they usually end up grimy from doing a lot of physical labour.
Beauty Chorus, then, ostensibly seeks to dispel those myths and show just how heroic the reality of these women are, and in some ways, the book succeeds. The italicized chapters, for example, from the perspective of ATA pilot Amy Johnson, who disappeared during a flight and was presumed dead, are touching and give us a taste of the risks these pilots take and the politics they face. The accounts of sabotage and general discrimination against female pilots also ring true, and help portray an important part of that history. And the final few chapters, where the story becomes a pure adventure-in-a-strange-land account, are enjoyable.
Unfortunately, I found Beauty Chorus so full of stock characters and melodramatic dialogue that it seemed more like the Hollywood movie the characters mocked than the reality they mentioned in passing. The main characters are adventurous debutante Evie, naive teenager Megan and young mother Stella, who left her baby with her in-laws. I found Evie mostly a standard “feisty beauty.” She gets into an altercation almost immediately with fighter pilot Beau who had immediately labelled her a spoiled brat, and as anyone who’s read a Harlequin novel can tell, that means other kinds of sparks are about to fly. In the book’s defence, Beau isn’t the stereotypical handsome brooding Alpha male. He is handsome, but scarred, literally, which adds a welcome sense of vulnerability. He is sharp, but not rude, which is good for his character, but also unfortunately makes Evie seem even pricklier. There is the standard villanous male, who I almost expect to wear a black hat, smirk and twirl a moustache every time he appears. There is also the stereotypical ditzy, ultra-girly romantic rival, who mocks Evie’s job and clothing as being “too masculine.”
Evie has a doting father and an evil stepmother straight from a soap opera, who is after her father’s money and does everything to undermine Evie. They get into some major cat fights throughout the book, with the stepmother using baby talk on the father then demanding behind the father’s back that Evie hand over her mother’s diamonds. At times, I almost expected one of them to slap the other, though, thankfully, they show a bit more restraint than that.
Megan’s family owns land, which Megan and her brother have used to build an airstrip. With the brother dead and Megan off to war, her evil cousins are circling her father, pressuring him to sell them the land so they can use it to make money. This, on top of the Evie’s evil stepmother storyline, and the only good thing I can say is that the evil cousins don’t appear as often as the evil stepmother does.
Stella probably begins as the most interesting character: she’s a mother who has lost her husband and left her baby behind, and quite understandably suffers from depression until she meets a handsome curate who is a good listener… You can probably guess where that goes. And that’s really the main problem – with so many stereotypes and so many cookie cutter situations, a lot of the book becomes predictable.
Details about the ATA pilots being forced beyond their comfort zone are limited to characters laughing about the glamorization of Hollywood, Evie shrieking over a mouse in their cottage and characters mentioning that they have a heavy schedule for the day. Otherwise, there are scenes with Evie driving them into town to shop for their cottage, the women going to dates, and, of course, Evie shrieking invectives at the evil stepmother.
One scene that really irked me, and I’ll try not to give any spoilers away: a woman is about to have sex when she and her date run into another man. She promptly leaves her date, apologizes to the other man, and they have sex, all in the space of a couple of pages. That in itself is pretty skeevy (poor date!), but it could have worked, especially since Brown has established this woman’s naivete. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough set-up to make me believe in the love between the character and this man. The past few chapters had her gushing about the date, and this other man hadn’t been mentioned at all. So when they suddenly declare deep feelings for each other, I couldn’t believe them. Worse, I felt I could no longer believe any of this character’s emotions in the future, and not in a good way.
There are some moments in the book I loved, mostly because I found they revealed a lot about the character, and in a non-stereotypical way. When Stella (who was still producing milk) was asked to give milk to a starving baby, she balks, and it takes the other woman a while to convince her to make the sacrifice. I thought this was just such a powerful moment, where Stella, against all logic, wants to save her milk only for her baby, even though he is in a completely different country. In another scene, when Evie sees a man beating up a dog with a stick, she takes the stick from the man and beats him up instead. I found that scene hilarious, and thought it really showed Evie’s passion for protecting the helpless.
Finally, I found the last quarter or so of the book, after a certain plot twist, to be a vast improvement. The “bad guy” characters were less prominent, which allowed Evie and the other characters to interact much more naturally, and develop beyond the stereotypes. I only wish this had come earlier, and that the villains, especially, were given more depth.
I wanted to love this book. I think it’s important to tell the stories of groups who may not have gotten as much attention in history about their war efforts, and I appreciated the Author’s Note at the end, which gave me a bit more information on the ATA pilots. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this exciting enough to be a straight-up adventure/romance story nor layered enough to be a penetrating look at the reality behind the glamour.