Monday, May 2, 2022

Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

Natalie Jenner's The Jane Austen Society, a fictionalized version of the founding of the Society and the saving and preservation of Chawton Cottage, was a charming, delicious read for lovers of all things Austen. This latest novel, Bloomsbury Girls, is another delightful novel. It is not quite a proper sequel but it follows a character from the previous book, Evie Stone. Occurring several years after The Jane Austen Society ends, this is Evie's story and several of the characters from the original novel make an appearance here.

It's 1950. Evie has graduated from Cambridge University, one of the first women granted a degree, but she is passed over for a research position in favor of a less qualified man. Unwilling to return home and abandon her research, she applies to work at Bloomsbury Books in London, cataloguing their chaotic rare books section. The day she arrives for her interview, Mr. Dutton, the general manager, suffers an epileptic seizure. Evie acts calmly in the face of the medical crisis, getting hired even as Mr. Dutton leaves the store on a stretcher. The new and rare bookstore has long been a dusty, traditional baston of male writers' works but Mr. Dutton's medical leave gives the women who work there, Evie, Vivien Lowery, whose upper crust fiance was killed in WWII, Grace Perkins, a mother of two in an unhappy marriage and the sole breadwinner in her family, room to implement their more progressive ideas about how the store should run. But when Mr. Dutton returns and things go back to the status quo, the women have no intention of quietly relinquishing their hard won power and influence.

The novel is the story of strong and determined women who are finding their way to live the lives they want. Tired of quietly and/or resentfully following the rules, making the tea, and staying in their places, they reach their breaking points and start to actively push against what is expected of them, both in their jobs and in society in general. They learn to ask for something bigger and to expect more than they are begrudgingly given. There are some light romantic elements here but they serve to emphasize the biggest ills of 1950s society: misogyny, racism, classism, and homophobia. Each chapter starts with one of the 51 non-negotiable rules of the shop that Mr. Dutton has framed and by which all employeess must abide at all times. Jenner then cleverly shows throughout the chapter how the rule, which might seem at first blush to be reasonable, can be circumvented or fails in specific instances. She has captured beautifully the undercurrents of workplace politics and the silent, non-verbal ways in which the women communicate their unhappiness and disagreement right under the noses of the men. The continual discrimination woven through the plot is infuriating but very true to life of the time (and not that far off from today either). There are fun cameos of famous writers and members of high society as well as characters from the previous book, almost all of whom back the women in their rebellion. Those in the book world who know their history will be delighted by the extended reference to Sunwise Turn in New York City. And the well-deserved ending will have the reader cheering. Similarly to the ending of an Austen novel, there is a quick and simple description of what each of the major characters has gone on to do by or after the end of the primary story. Readers who loved The Jane Austen Society, readers interested in neglected nineteenth century women writers, readers who enjoy seeing women overcome the handicaps society imposes on them, and readers who appreciate a slow building but ultimately victorious rebellion will be well rewarded with this engaging and winsome novel.

For more information about Natalie Jenner and the book, check our her author site, like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or Instagram, look at the book's Goodreads page, read another review and follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Laurel Ann from Austenprose and publisher St. Martin's Press for inspiring me to pull my copy of this book off the shelf to review.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kristen. Being set in a bookstore was so perfect for me along with Jenner's engaging characters. I am looking forward to her new novel.


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