Bloomsbury Girls

This historical novel (368 pages) was published in May of 2022 by St. Martin's Press. The book takes you to 1950 London. Melissa read Bloomsbury Girls and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.

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Bloomsbury Girls

Natalie Jenner

Time-travel to post-WWII London, where women take a stand, men are put in their place (eventually), and the book business is booming.

For 100 years, Bloomsbury Books has been correct. Dignified. Some might call it old-fashioned. But not the stodgy men who run the place. They know just how things should be done — and that is the way they have always been done.

The general manager Mr. Herbert Dutton has written a list of 51 rules that are strictly enforced. For example, Rule No. 17: ‘Tea shall be served promptly four times a day.’ There are also regulations about the observance of working hours, fraternizing between staff members, and the tenor of customer interactions.

Working inside this old boy’s club are three strong-willed women who could tidily manage Bloomsbury Books if only Mr. Herbert Dutton and the other department heads would get out of their way.

There’s Grace. She’s a secretary — and often responsible for making the tea of Rule No. 17. She’s been supporting her family of two kids since her husband had a breakdown after the war, and she’s beginning to chafe against the constraints of her life.

Her best pal is Vivien. Hotheaded and forthright, her uniform is black pencil skirts and red lipstick. And she’s angry: at the world, at her dead fiance’s snooty family, at the war that took her man, and at Alex, the Head of Fiction at the bookshop.

Finally, there’s Evie. She was among the first female students to graduate from Cambridge University. Gifted with an unimpeachable memory and a whiz at cataloging books, she was passed over for a research job at Cambridge. She’s joined the staff of Bloomsbury Books with an ulterior motive.

Given this setup, you might expect a sweet trifle about an idealized shop in a twee version of London, all quirky characters and charming conversation. But this story has sharp teeth. Although the women might begin as stock characters — the good girl, the vamp, the egghead student — they and the men in their lives prove themselves to be full-realized: daring, relatable, sharp, and vulnerable. They come alive on the page.

This book is a coming-of-age story about the bookshop itself and the social change that swept England in the early 1950s. Bloomsbury evolves as Grace, Vivien, and Evie assert themselves and wreak havoc on the leather-and-scotch status quo. Along the way, there’s a literary mystery and all manner of romances and sexual escapades, as well as satisfying scenes in which characters get their long-overdue comeuppance. And, because it’s 1950, there’s also racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia which is balanced out by forward-thinking characters and lots of talk about books and writing.

Rule No. 41 reads thusly: ‘All shop events must be held after hours.’

In blatant disregard of the rules, Grace and Viv host an afternoon literary luncheon with the glamorous and acclaimed Daphne du Maurier. When the Head of Fiction gets wind of their idea, he scoffs, ‘Daphne du Maurier? The romance writer?’

Despite their male colleagues’ skepticism, the event with the author of Rebecca is a triumph. And while it doesn’t solve all of their problems, that taste of success is the start of a revolution that takes root in Bloomsbury Books.

Heads up: The audiobook version narrated by British actress Juliet Stevenson is excellent. She’s particularly adept with accents and does a brilliant job giving individual voice to each character.

The entire neighborhood was full of spies. Grace and Vivient were not the only two bookstore employees out and about, checking on other stores’ window displays. London was starting to boom again, after five long years of post-war rationing and recovery, and new bookshops were popping up all over. Bloomsbury was home to the British Museum, the University of London, and many famous authors past and present, including the pre-war circle of Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey. This made the district a particularly ideal location for readers, authors, and customers alike. — Natalie Jenner

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