Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner
Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: May 17, 2022
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Hello! Before I get into my thoughts on the book I need to preface them. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while (thank you!) you know at least two things about me. One, my disdain for books I deem too sweet or cozy. Two, I’m not quiet when it comes to my thoughts about women’s rights. These are not worlds that usually collide, but today I have a 5-star fabulous novel, Bloomsbury Girls, that is both cozy and feminist. What’s happening?!
It’s 1950 and England is still recovering from World War II. Women who stepped up and out in the workplace during the war are now expected go back to their homes and sit quietly. For the three women working at the venerable Bloomsbury Books, this is not practical. Grace can’t stop working. Her husband, older by 15 years, has returned from war in a querulous state of inertia that leaves him anchored to the couch, demanding peace and quiet—a difficult request with two young sons. Vivien is simply temperamentally unable to smother her ambition and opinions, meaning she has no patience for her boss—who started the same day she did but was promoted solely because he’s a man. His entitlement and unwillingness to change anything at all chafe.
The third of these women and the youngest, Eve is from the first class of women to graduate from Cambridge. Despite this achievement she’s mired in insecurities, having been a scholarship student and then having been passed over for a research position at the university. In her time at school her research unearthed information about the possible existence of a book she believes to be one-of-a-kind. A book that might be at Bloomsbury Books. Her rare book experience gets her hired as a cataloguer for the neglected, unorganized department.
The counterpoint to the women’s energy is the store’s manager, Mr. Dutton, a firm believer in rules—there are 51 he’s created for the store and they must be adhered to at all times. When he goes on leave due to ill health, Grace, Vivien, and Eve use his absence to put their own plans for Bloomsbury Books in play. Vivien is left to run the fiction department, which she does by immediately shelving dusty old tomes, creating a sales bin for Misogynists authors, and pulling forward all the female authors’ books. Grace uses her formidable book keeping skills and creative skills to freshen up the store in ways decidedly too feminine for the old guard. Only Eve, in her quest for the lost book is untouched by the changes, but she does begin to peer out of her shell to marvel at these women who seem unstoppable.
Of course, they aren’t and there must be obstacles in Bloomsbury Girls. Author Natalie Jenner plays the shedding of the old in the store off against the women’s personal lives. Grace’s marriage has gone from stagnant to toxic, but the thought of starting a new life with two small children seems impossible. Vivien’s creativity has been unleashed and the innovations she brings to the store create new opportunities for her. And even the quiet Evie who seldom ventures down from her department on the third floor is beginning to overcome her feelings of inferiority and reaching out to other members of the staff.
This is the birds’ eye view of Bloomsbury Girls and I could go on for pages until there was nothing left to know about the novel, but the joy is in the reading. After a war when England burned Jenner captures both the weariness left over, but more importantly the spirit of people ready to rebuild better. To this end she makes notable women of the times, like Daphne Du Maurier, Peggy Guggenheim, and Ellen Doubleday, an integral part of the novel. They impart an infectious energy even as Grace, Vivien, and Evie continue to meet roadblocks from an establishment that abhors change.
Bloomsbury Girls is not complicated reading and while I appreciate complexity in my fiction there are times when tidy is necessary for the agitated brain. Do all of the pieces in the novel align a squidge too neatly? Yes, but Jenner does it in a way that feels organic, not manipulative. There is no clear path to a positive outcome for any of the women, but Bloomsbury Girls made me feel energized and hopeful—not things I’ve felt lately when considering women in society these days. I’ll happy take it!
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*I received a free copy of this book from St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest review.*