Natalie Jenner, the internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society, returns with a compelling and heartwarming story of post-war London, a century-old bookstore, and three women determined to find their way in a fast-changing world in Bloomsbury Girls.
Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare bookstore that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men and guided by the general manager’s unbreakable fifty-one rules. But in 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans:
Vivien Lowry: Single since her aristocratic fiancé was killed in action during World War II, the brilliant and stylish Vivien has a long list of grievances–most of them well justified and the biggest of which is Alec McDonough, the Head of Fiction.
Grace Perkins: Married with two sons, she’s been working to support the family following her husband’s breakdown in the aftermath of the war. Torn between duty to her family and dreams of her own.
Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she’s working at Bloomsbury Books while she plans to remake her own future.
As they interact with various literary figures of the time–Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and others–these three women with their complex web of relationships, goals and dreams are all working to plot out a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow.
Narrated by esteemed stage and screen actress Juliet Stevenson, enjoy the full unabridged edition of Bloomsbury Girls. “Stevenson delivers the satisfying triumph at the end with perfect polish.” —AudioFile Magazine
2020 brought an interesting (albeit fictional) tale about the founding of The Jane Austen Society, aptly titled The Jane Austen Society. Two years later we get Bloomsbury Girls, a little bit of a sequel for one character: Evie Stone, the brilliant housemaid from Chawton house who so carefully catalogued the Great House Library before its auction, is now a young woman and one of the first women to earn a degree from Cambridge. However, in post-war Britain the boys’ club still reigns in academia and Evie is denied an academic position despite her qualifications. She decides to reach out to an acquaintance via a contact from Sotheby’s and begins work cataloging the rare books of Bloomsbury Books in London.
But all is not well in this bookshop. The two female employees of the shop – Vivien and Grace – are relegated to the cash register and secretarial duties, respectively. Never mind that they each have ideas to help bring new customers to the shop or for new stock that might be in demand. It’s the men who take care of those things in yet another boys’ club. And those men are so set in their ways they might as well be carved of granite. When Mr. Dutton suffers a seizure during Evie’s interview and takes a subsequent medical leave, the shakeup in the employee roster sets events in motion that will transform Bloomsbury Books forever.
I quite liked this sort-of sequel to The Jane Austen Society – don’t worry, you can totally read it as a standalone, there’s enough in the text about what happened before to get you through. The real meat of the story is the network that develops between Evie, Vivien, and Grace and spreads outward to encompass a number of real-life characters – Ellen Doubleday, Daphne du Maurier, Peggy Guggenheim, Sonia Brownell (Orwell) – and how they leverage their connections to make change. Because they really do want to burn down the patriarchy. Whether a husband who refuses to get help at home (Grace), being denied an academic position (Evie), or being relegated to the cash register by the very man you slept with who then slut-shamed you (Vivien – yeah, wow, Alec is a real ass at times), they each have their own ways of pushing back against the institution trying to cage them in but it really is only together that they can make The Patriarchy step aside. And they really do make the men step aside, it is great. (I’m going to give some content warnings for things you can expect in post-war Britain: references to PTSD, deaths of characters’ loved ones and grief, domestic violence, mental health.)
Also, if mid-century literature is your jam, this book is a delight with all the books and authors name-checked throughout. Add in one very interesting Lady Browning aka Daphne du Maurier, who is a kick at a literary luncheon, and Samuel Beckett dispensing writing advice and it’s quite fun.
There are a number of romantic pairings in this book. Lord Baskin, the owner of the shop, has a rather sweet pining, very slow developing, affection with Grace – it’s very #complicated because of cross-class issues and the rather large problem of Grace’s actual husband, but you get the sense at the end that maybe it will work out for these two mid-forties adults. Vivien and Alec are the enemies-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers-to-blood feud enemies-to-friends (?) pairing where all their barriers to being civil are basically that they’re too similar in personality and that Alec is a prudish dick (he figures this out in the end). Evie strikes up a friendship which turns to a quiet romance with Dr. Ashwin Ramaswamy, a botanist from Madras unable to find a place at the universities in the UK (if you have guessed that the reason is racism, you are correct) and who now heads up the science department at Bloomsbury Books. Evie and Ash are both excellent characters, but this was the romance that didn’t quite connect for me. I kept thinking these two liked each other only because they liked research, and that they were friendly, but didn’t get a sense that they were into each other as people. Maybe I missed something.
Although I read a paper galley, if you are are into audiobooks, this one is read by the wonderful Juliet Stevenson – check out the audiobook sample above!
Bloomsbury Girls is out now! And for more thoughts on the book, read the review at Austenprose.
Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book from the publisher because I am participating in the blog tour organized by Laurel Ann at Austenprose. Thanks Laurel Ann!!
Natalie Jenner is the author of the instant international bestseller The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls. A Goodreads Choice Award runner-up for historical fiction and finalist for best debut novel, The Jane Austen Society was a USA Today and #1 national bestseller and has been sold for translation in twenty countries. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie has been a corporate lawyer, career coach and, most recently, an independent bookstore owner in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. Visit her website to learn more.
A LETTER FROM THE AUTHOR
Dear readers, I am immensely grateful for the outpouring of affection that so many of you have expressed for my debut novel The Jane Austen Society and its eight main characters. When I wrote its epilogue (in one go and without ever changing a word), I wanted to give each of Adam, Mimi, Dr. Gray, Adeline, Yardley, Frances, Evie and Andrew the happy Austenesque ending they each deserved. But I could not let go of servant girl Evie Stone, the youngest and only character inspired by real life (my mother, who had to leave school at age fourteen, and my daughter, who does eighteenth-century research for a university professor and his team). Bloomsbury Girlscontinues Evie’s adventures into a 1950s London bookshop where there is a battle of the sexes raging between the male managers and the female staff, who decide to pull together their smarts, connections, and limited resources to take over the shop and make it their own. There are dozens of new characters in Bloomsbury Girls from several different countries, and audiobook narration was going to require a female voice of the highest training and caliber. When I learned that British stage and screen actress Juliet Stevenson, CBE, had agreed to narrate, I knew that my story could not be in better hands, and I so hope you enjoy reading or listening to it. Warmest regards, Natalie