Fiction, Historical, Social Themes

Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

The Jane Austen Society #2

To say I pestered our sales rep endlessly for a manuscript of Bloomsbury Girls would be an understatement. As soon as I knew it was coming (summer 2020 when I did a virtual event with Natalie for the bookstore) I asked at least biweekly when I would be allowed to read it. And then I read it all in one sitting over Labor Day and it was better than I hoped.

Synopsis

From the publisher marketing:
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.

Review

I was the bookseller begging and pleading with the publisher to have a copy of this book as soon as absolutely possible and my persistence was rewarded with a bound manuscript back in September. I read the entirety of Bloomsbury Girls in just over 48 hours, a miracle for someone who had been struggling to read a full book for nearly six months (last year’s reading goal was far from reached). I’ll describe Bloomsbury Girls just as I did Yours, Cheerfully, as a book that felt like returning to all your old friends after nearly two years of great change and uncertainty.

When I read The Jane Austen Society, we were only a month into the pandemic and the bookstore was still completely closed and I missed it dearly. I remarked that Natalie, as a former bookseller, had written the perfect book for booksellers with her debut, an absolute booksellers’ dream of a novel. And now she has topped herself. While I think I will always love The Jane Austen Society more, Bloomsbury Girls has forced me to redefine my expectation of the perfect bookseller book; Bloomsbury Girls is the perfect book for booksellers.

Natalie’s books have helped me identify a new favorite subgenre, one I’m calling mid-century feminist historical fiction with a touch of coziness. Within each of the booksellers of Bloomsbury Books, I found myself and each of my coworkers. As someone who has always been part of a staff at the store of mostly women with a man at the helm, I could overwhelmingly relate (not a knock on my bosses, but sometimes they just don’t think of things as women do).

In Alec, head of fiction, I saw my current boss, the man who loves spending time on the floor talking about his favorite books but leaves the back office work in chaos. In Mr. Dutton, general manager, my former boss, happy to continue on as things were with a great wealth of knowledge of the book world. In Evie, the many girls who have come through the store who were shelving whizzes and who taught me so much about how Gen Z appreciates backlist titles they found on Book Tok. In Ash, head of science, my own husband (though not a bookstore employee, but a customer of said store for 30 years). And in Grace and Vivien, myself. In Grace, the need to keep everything organized and on track, and in Vivien, the spark to have women’s voices heard and elevated on all the shelves.

Bloomsbury Books is a shop run by men in the world of men. But in 1950, the world of men is changing. The women of the world went to work during WWII and were not too happy to just pack it in and go back to being mothers and housewives and secretaries. The world of men in academia faced a reckoning as well, which lands our dear Evie at Bloomsbury Books with a score to settle with the men of Cambridge. The women of Bloomsbury Books do not have the trust funds and family money to settle back on if things don’t work out, they are middle class women working because they need to, as so many of us do today. For them to reach their goals, luck and fate often need to intervene because sheer hard work is not enough if they’re up against a man for the same position.

And lucky for us, dear readers, luck and fate find their way to Grace, Vivien and dear Evie, in the form of many well, and sometimes less well, known women of the literary world of the mid-twentieth century, including one very well known gothic writer and a few prominent widows. The women know what it is to work hard for little recognition and take our booksellers under wing to tremendous effect.

Bloomsbury Girls is the perfect book for not only booksellers (though it will be greatly loved by those of us who peddle books for a living) but for anyone who longs to see women doing great things in a time when the odds were stacked even higher against them. It’s a must read for historical fiction lovers, and for those who love my new favorite subgenre, feminist mid-century historical fiction with a hint of coziness, as well!

Rating: 10 out of 10

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.

Check out my virtual event with Natalie & Phuc Tran!

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