When I picked up Bloomsbury Girls, I hadn’t realised that it follows an earlier novel, The Jane Austen Society. The newer book continues the story of bright, young thing, Evie Stone, who is now fresh out of Cambridge and a bit miffed.
Evie has been passed over for a research position, and for a male graduate who isn’t half as clever. This is 1949 and women have only recently been allowed to be conferred degrees, so she shouldn’t be surprised. Turning up in London for a job interview, she administers first aid to the manager when he collapses. While he’s recovering, they’re a man down, so Evie finds herself hired.
Soon settled in on the third floor, Evie has to catalogue the mass of rare books bought at auctions by Frank Allen, one of the owners. She has an ulterior motive, but the lack of order makes finding any particular book quite challenging. Fortunately Evie has a quick and methodical mind.
The other ‘girls’ of the title are aspiring author Vivian Lowry and unhappily married Grace Perkins. Grace loves her work at the bookshop – it’s a place she can escape a husband who has had a breakdown and who makes her life a misery. If it weren’t for her two young boys, she would leave him. At the shop she has a good friend in Vivian, who since losing her fiancé during the war, has become an angry young female, pouring all her feelings into the notebooks she carries with her.
Also on the staff is Alec McDonough, who is head of fiction and who has a fascination for Vivian. He too is an aspiring author, but any chance he and Vivian might share their work are hampered by the sparks that fly between them, occasionally romantic, but mostly they’re darts of fury from Vivian. Ashwin Ramaswamy is down in the basement, studying tiny organisms among the shelves of science and nature books.
Ash is also disappointed, having come from India to make something of himself, but struggles with the racism he experiences in London. It isn’t surprising that he and Evie become friends. They’re both up against it. Meanwhile, Lord Baskin, with his financial interest in the shop, finds more and more excuses to pop in since Grace arrived on the scene.
While there are several romantic threads to the story, the main thrust of the plot concerns Evie’s secret mission and to achieve her aims, help comes from a few surprising quarters. Will Evie find what she is looking for? Can Grace begin again and find happiness for herself and her boys? Will Vivian overcome her anger and succeed as a writer? Is there any hope for women to achieve their dreams in post-war Britain?
The novel includes some real-life characters, including Daphne du Maurier, Samuel Beckett and Peggy Guggenheim. They’re nicely brought to life as they interact with Evie and her colleagues. It all comes together in a light, feel-good read packed with warmth and humour. And there’s a smart literary quality too, giving you the impression that the author really knows her twentieth century literature.
It doesn’t really matter if you haven’t read The Jane Austen Society – although I for one will be hunting down this debut novel. Bloomsbury Girls is a fun, satisfying story – a four star read from me. There’s another book, Every Time We Say Goodbye in the pipeline, but not out until next year. Clearly, Jenner’s an author to watch.