Author: Natalie Jenner
Publication: St. Martin’s, hardcover, 2022
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: London, 1950Description: In this companion novel to The Jane Austen Society, three women encroach on the male world of bookselling at a shop in the Bloomsbury section of London. Evie Stone, previously a servant at Chawton Manor (once owned by Jane Austen’s affluent brother) improbably became a brilliant student at Cambridge University but lost out on a research position to a conniving male classmate. Desperate to pursue her dreams of scholarship, she obtains a job at Bloomsbury Books, secretly hoping to find a rare copy of an unknown novel buried somewhere among the dusty shelves. The bookshop has just two other female employees who have worked there since the end of WWII: Grace Perkins, who manages the bookkeeping, working to support her unemployed husband and two sons, and sharp-tongued Vivien Lowry, who lost her fiancé in the war and is forced to stand behind the counter ringing up sales, although more knowledgeable than most of the men with senior positions. When the crusty store manager becomes ill, the three women take on their male counterparts, adding in store events, women’s fiction, themed tables, and increased sales. Will they be willing to step back into the shadows or inspired to strive for their own destiny?
My Impression: Just the title alone of this book made me excited to read it, although it started off slowly and I found Evie’s story somewhat unconvincing. Perhaps if I had read The Jane Austen Society, I would have witnessed her metamorphosis from servant to Cambridge graduate more convincing. However, the depiction of daily life at the dusty bookshop was entertaining and the story is enlivened by several literary figures of the era – Daphne du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, and Peggy Guggenheim. Having recently visited du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall, I enjoyed her appearance in this book although I wondered if she was really the type to befriend young women working in a shop.
Vivien takes advantage of her new friendship with Daphne du Maurier to book her a literary luncheon, although conceited coworker Alec ridicules the idea:
“Bookshops during the day are not a place for people to speak,” Alec insisted. “They’re a place for people to read, and to buy.”Happily, Daphne (I use a lower case d in du) charms “the room of middle-aged matrons and housewives who had been thrilled to learn of an event that they could conveniently fail to mention to their husbands, taking place as it did in the middle of their shopping day” and her talk is a big success, leading to others. The struggles of these three women in post-war London to make a living, be treated with respect by their male colleagues – and even by the bookshop customers in some instances –made for an interesting narrative. Books about people who love books are almost always appealing and there were aspects of this that were appealing. Overall, however, there were times when the story dragged or seemed repetitious, and I found Evie’s quest to obtain the novel unnecessarily complicated.The Intrepid Reader.
“And I know exactly whom to invite to the first one,” Vivien said.
“I said to read.”
“Daphne Du Maurier? The romance writer?” Alex asked with a dismissive noise.