Monday, June 27, 2022

Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

Jenner follows upon the success of her hugely popular Jane Austen Society (2020) with the 1950s London-based story, Bloomsbury Girls, about three shopgirls, a century-old bookshop, and much feuding between the male staff and the female staff to take ownership of the shop.

The servant girl, Evie Stone, from Jane Austen Society is now all grown up with a degree from Cambridge and has found her home among the rare books of Bloomsbury Books & Maps. Jenner says that Evie Stone is the only character inspired by real life: her own mother, who had to leave school at age fourteen, and her own daughter, who does eighteenth-century research for a university professor and his team.

Illustrious women of the publishing world, such as Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, George Orwell’s widow Sonia Blair, Peggy Guggenheim, and others make cameo appearances at the bookshop and at literary salons around London, setting the stage on which the three female employees, Grace Perkins, Vivien Lowry, and Evie Stone, build their dreams and careers.

Vivien Lowry is vivacious, self-confident, and very much single. She still mourns the loss of her aristocratic fiancé who was killed in action during World War II. She is reluctantly in charge of the cash register though her goal is to be Head of Fiction and replace some of the stuffy male-only titles with books by women. She is in a love-hate relationship with Alec McDonough, the current Head of Fiction.

Grace Perkins has worked at the shop the longest. She prefers keeping her head down at her bookkeeping and secretarial job in the backrooms of the shop. Her two sons are her joy. But her marriage is suffocating under her husband’s increasingly worsening mental health. Grace is always dutiful, but there are times when she wishes she could run away. Her only respite is Lord Baskin, the aristocratic owner of the shop who spends time with her and makes her laugh.

Evelyn “Evie” Stone is the shop’s newest and youngest employee who was hired based on her being in the first class of female students from Cambridge who were permitted to earn a degree. In her naïveté, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. She is determined to make a success of her secret project in London, which is to print notable works by women writers that have been lost to obscurity. The shop’s shy scientist in charge of the Science and Naturalism Department, Ashwin “Ash” Ramaswamy, opens her shy, innocent eyes to Indian culture and British racism. And to attraction.

As we saw in Jane Austen Society, and especially heightened in Bloomsbury Girls, Jenner skillfully imbues her characters with so much personality, you cannot help getting enmeshed in their vivid lives unfolding on the page. In both books, Jenner explores friendships and a coming together for a common cause; in other words, a life of meaning and purpose. Women in postwar London were not allowed to exhibit ambition and a career-focus, but that is exactly what the women in the story pursue. Stealth and much derring-do in the sale of a precious forgotten three-volume manuscript add color and drama to the narrative.

Bloomsbury Girls solidly situates Jenner as a writer of unforgettable and delightful historical fiction. If you are enamored with books and bookshops, then Jenner, who was an independent bookstore owner in Oakville, Ontario, is the perfect person to introduce Bloomsbury Books & Maps to you.

[Please note: The unabridged audiobook has been narrated by the esteemed British actress Juliet Stevenson, who has narrated many period audiobooks. No one does characters as distinctly and well as her.]