Historical fiction seems to be a popular genre these days, especially books set in Europe or Britain during WW2. Starting with The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah, there have been so many of this type released over the past few years it’s hard to keep track of them all, let alone read them. Another popular choice involves anything with a bookstore in it’s title. While I tend to be a sucker for these kinds of books, they sometimes don’t live up to the hype, but combine the two, and you get the absolutely delightful read, Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner.
The internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society returns with a compelling and heartwarming story of post-war London, a century-old bookstore, and three women determined to find their way in a fast-changing world.
Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare book store that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men and guided by the general manager’s unbreakable fifty-one rules. But in 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans:
Vivien Lowry: Single since her aristocratic fiance was killed in action during World War II, the brilliant and stylish Vivien has a long list of grievances – most of them well justified and the biggest of which is Alec McDonough, the Head of Fiction.
Grace Perkins: Married with two sons, she’s been working to support the family following her husband’s breakdown in the aftermath of the war. Torn between duty to her family and dreams of her own.
Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she’s working at Bloomsbury Books while she plans to remake her own future.
As they interact with various literary figures of the time – Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and others – these three women with their complex web of relationships, goals and dreams are all working to plot out a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow.
About the Author: Natalie Jenner was a new find of mine, after reading The Jane Austen Society, which I blogged about in 2020 (see link) – a post WW2 story about how a group of diverse villagers came together to save Jane Austen’s Chawton cottage. It was a good read for a first book, if a bit uneven, but this newest one is just brilliantly done. She must feel a great sense of satisfaction having two bestsellers, after five failed publishing attempts earlier in her life. (link) A life long lover of books, she owned an independent bookstore in Oakville, Ontario for awhile, so she knows her subject matter. She graduated from U of T with degrees in English literature and Law and worked as a corporate lawyer in Toronto, which probably came in handy for reading all those book contracts. (Translation rights sold to 20 countries.)
Discussion: This book was described by one Goodreads reviewer as Mad Men meets You’ve Got Mail. I never watched the TV show Mad Men – although I loved the fashions, I couldn’t get past the sexist attitudes, (not to mention the cigarette smoking), and abandoned it after the first few episodes. This is a 50’s book, but told from a feminist point of view.
I loved the clever way the author used the manager’s rules for employees at the head of each chapter, and then had the characters proceed to break each and every one. The characters are well drawn and not cliche, as so many of these books can be. Properly cast, it would make a good movie or tv series of the kind PBS/Masterpiece is famous for. I also liked the way she wove the real life authors and historical figures of that era into the plot. Plus it had a suspenseful but heartwarming ending. I always enjoy a bit of karma in my books.
I liked the way the author has carried forward several of the characters from her first book, including Evie Stone, the maid in the Great House at Chawton who helped to catalogue the library and then went on to study at Cambridge. Although connected, each book can be read as a stand alone. In an interview the author discusses her upcoming third book, due in 2024, where she transports one of the Bloomsbury girls to 1950’s Italy – shades of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday – bring it on!
This is a book about strong women and a great read for book and bookstore lovers.
PS. While we may admire the elegant fashions of the 50’s who would want to go back to the chauvinistic rules and inequality of those years? I was lucky to grow up in the first wave of the women’s movement, with the invincible feeling that I could do anything if I worked hard enough. I think sometimes people forget what we fought for. Rise up, women of the world, rise up!