Two years ago, Natalie Jenner released her debut novel, The Jane Austen Society. It became a bestseller, and now readers can enjoy her latest novel: Bloomsbury Girls. While it features some characters first seen in The Jane Austen Society – and references some events therein – it also works as a standalone. It’s an inspiring book about books, about post-WWII England, and about women earning greater respect and recognition in a rapidly changing world.
Special thanks to Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose PR, and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
Bloomsbury Girls takes readers to the first months of 1950 in London. Vivien and Grace have both worked at the local book store, Bloomsbury Books, for four years, but they’ve had little opportunity for advancement. Recent Cambridge grad Evie Stone has just been hired, and a medical emergency forces the general manager to take a leave of absence. This gives some of the employees a chance to move into roles with greater responsibility, and it’s not long before the three women are looking for ways to achieve permanent advancement – within the shop and the larger literary world. Their personal and professional lives intertwine in this feminist snapshot of an era of immense change.
Bloomsbury Girls is a slow-burn historical fiction that takes its time in unfolding. It focuses on the three women characters, introducing Evie, Grace, and Vivien in turn as very different people, in very different stages of their lives, yet sharing some key commonalities. All work at the old-fashioned bookstore Bloomsbury Books (Evie is the newest hire), putting in the work but not always being recognized or rewarded for it. They’re women, after all, and the men running the shop can’t see women having leadership positions. The bookstore caters to male customers first and foremost, and women authors, too, tend to be less welcomed on their shelves or at events.
Despite the restrictions, Vivien, Grace, and Evie are ambitious and willing to seize their own success. Vivien may be the most fiery and direct in her approach: 30 years old, she writes in her free time and longs to be a published author. She would also be a wonderful manager in the new fiction department, if only given the chance. She’s not afraid to speak her mind and go after what she wants. Similar in ambition is Evie, a new graduate from Cambridge, but she’s much quieter in her approach. Evie has a secret plan, and she’ll go about it without attracting any attention until it’s time for her big reveal. Finally there’s Grace: Approaching 40 and feeling the pressure of providing for her family, Grace simply wants to keep her sons safe, escape the gloom that has fallen over her marriage, and attain a sense of security in her life.
While it took me some time to really get into the book, it did slowly but surely capture my full interest. I loved seeing how these three very distinct women were carving out a space for themselves in spite of the men who would hold them back, in spite of how the times (1950 England) still limited women in major ways. It was a period of change, and this story is of strength, resilience, and feminism as women fought to make the new era better.
I also enjoyed getting an inside look at the world of publishing and book sales. In general, I love a good book about books, and this one fully fits the bill. Bloomsbury Girls takes place primarily at the bookstore where they work. It details what goes into running a bookstore, from working with publishers to hosting author events. Speaking of author events: A few famous figures make appearances here, some even helping out our characters in important ways. Daphne Du Maurier, Samuel Beckett, Ellen Doubleday, and more play vital supporting roles.
Against the backdrop of their workplace, we move beyond their professional lives and get to know the three women on a personal level, too. Perhaps most significant is Grace’s troubled marriage and her uncertainty about what action she should take. All three women also have romantic subplots with different co-workers (or, in one case, the store’s owner). Each is intriguing in its own way, but not all are smooth sailing! While two of the men seem like worthy partners from the beginning, one of them has a lot of personal growing to do. All three romances are wrapped up nicely and realistically while leaving some room for your imagination.
Themes surrounding race and acceptance (one character is Indian) and sexual orientation (whom that regards would be a spoiler) also arise, giving extra depth and nuance to an already powerful novel. Ultimately, it all unites to paint a fuller picture of the pivotal time this was and just how forward-thinking our main characters are.
Juliet Stevenson narrates Bloomsbury Girls. She does a lovely job, matching the serene yet knowing tone of the book. She gives the characters subtly different voices, just enough to distinguish between; her narration is never overly acted or too intense. Instead, she presents the story like it is a beloved and well-known tale: comforting and familiar.
Although Bloomsbury Girls took me some time to get into, it fully captured my heart by the end. I have not read The Jane Austen Society, but I found that this works perfectly as a standalone. However, I expect that if you have read the previous novel, you will find extra delight in seeing some of those characters reappear here – Evie in particular. This is a novel that would appeal to women of all ages, anyone who likes seeing feminism in decades past, and anyone who loves stories about books, writers, and avid readers.
Get the Book
You can pre-order Bloomsbury Girls here – it will be available next Tuesday, May 17th, as a hardcover, ebook, and audiobook.
PRINT & DIGITAL BOOK
|Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner|
|Audiobook Narrator||Juliet Stevenson|
|Genre||Historical Fiction; Women’s Fiction|
|Length of Book||12.5 hours; 368 pages|
|Format I Read||Audiobook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||May 17, 2022|
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.
About the Author
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.