Audrey Parsons went out to India to marry a man near her uncle's remote tea plantation. Once there she knew they wouldn't suit and she ended by returning to England. This wasn't the first time that a trip to India and an engagement didn't end at the altar for her, much to her parents' chagrin. What she did come home with though was the seed of the idea, proposed by her uncle, that would eventually become the Marriage Bureau. Enlisting her friend, Heather Jenner, a socially astute divorcee, the two women determined to start a business that would match up eligible single men and women with suitable people they might not otherwise meet. Jenner and Parsons, the latter using the name Mary Oliver to hide her potentially scandalous actions from her parents, built the first matchmaking business of its kind even as the shadow of WWII loomed ever closer. The two women insisted on interviewing each of their clients, and they maintained a meticulous record of each person in order to find good and viable matches for as many people as possible. They took into consideration not only class and age but also some interesting and unique wants and likes. Their businesslike approach and astute use of feel-good publicity grew their business into a thriving concern and many people did in fact find their partner and happiness through the auspices of the Marriage Bureau.
This delightful true story captures the imagination of the reader much as the business did of a nation starved for positive news in the face of an imminent war. The tales of the real people who turned to Jenner and Oliver run the gamut. Some people were delights while others were positively difficult and demanding. The way that they carefully vetted all clients was fascinating and reflected the mores and attitudes of the time. Starting in 1939 and initially thought of as a good way for expats only back in Blighty for a brief time to find a wife, the bureau expanded to take on all sorts from local to international and it stayed as busy, if not more so, during the war, as it had beforehand. Because of the inclusion of the stories of the matches, the narrative has a very episodic feel to it. Its general tone is sweet and cheerful although there are certainly some very poignant and sad tales included as well. The very end includes lists of actual comments the interviewers made about the clients and some were a bit horrifyingly unkind but they were entertaining all the same (although I shudder to think what notes on me might have looked like). The book only covers the first ten years of the bureau's existence and I would have liked more on how the bureau evolved over the years, even if only in an epilogue. This is a quick read, a fascinating snapshot of a time and a society, a very different angle on the war years indeed.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for sending me a copy of this book to review.