Today I’m so pleased to be sharing with you my review of Natalie Jenner’s second novel, Bloomsbury Girls, soon to be published on May 17th by St Martin’s Press. I’m very grateful to have received an advanced copy of the book in exchange for review – being able to read books like this in advance is one of the great pleasures of writing and running this blog, and this one is, simply, wonderful.
As ever, I’ll keep my book review spoiler free!
Jenner’s book picks up on one of the most beloved characters in her previous novel, The Jane Austen Society, Evie Stone, who I previously waxed lyrical about in my review of that. We pick up in 1949, when Evie has now finished her degree at Girton College, Cambridge. She is one of the first women to do so.
Evie is, of course, specialising in female writers, and is trying to land a research assistant position with a Senior Fellow at Jesus College. He refuses her and instead hires through nepotism, leaving Evie without a job and a way to stay in Cambridge.
So Evie travels to London, in pursuit of an idea that has taken over her since her days cataloguing the Chawton House library, and lands a job at Bloomsbury Books.
Here, we are introduced to a new cast of characters that provides the ensemble nature to the story which Jenner executed so well in The Jane Austen Society. Whilst Evie is ensconced in the Rare Books section, cataloguing for the Head of Rare Books, Frank Allen, who never seems to be present, she becomes part of a community interlinked with each other and each experiencing their own struggles.
Herbert Dutton, General Manager, has led the shop lovingly but highly stringently for many years, providing a list of rules that all employees must follow. On the day of Evie’s arrival, he suffers a fit and is signed off work, leaving Alec McDonough, former Head of Fiction, to take over in his place.
Alec has a particularly frosty relationship with Vivien Lowry, a glamorous and outspoken staff member who takes on Alec’s previous role with more gusto than he has ever previously managed.
Master Mariner Scott remains hidden in his History section, whilst Ashwin Ramaswamy, Head of Science and Naturalism, shares Evie’s sadness over having barriers put in his way in his academic career too.
Vivien’s close friend, Grace Perkins, Secretary to Dutton, has a punishing home life and struggles with her feelings of warmth towards the owner of the shop, Lord Baskin, who always has her best interests at heart.
The upheaval caused by Dutton’s leave of absence throws the shop into a disarray that the male members of staff struggle with, but the female welcome and thrive in. Jenner does a wonderful job of connecting these fictional characters to a wonderful real literary world: in and out of Bloomsbury Books walks Peggy Guggenheim, Daphne du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Brownell Blair and Samuel Beckett, to name but a few.
Also, I don’t want to ruin what Evie’s secret agenda is in working in the shop, but it is connected to the world of early nineteenth-century women’s writing in ways that anyone who loved Jenner’s previous novel will adore. I was so swept up in this side of the narrative that I was convinced Jenner had imagined it for the reader: when, in actual fact, thanks to a deep dive on the internet, I found out that the women writer in question was real, and is next up on my reading list.
Bloomsbury Girls is a heart warming read that will take you to the heart of 1950s literary London – the exploration of Britain post-war connected with reading and a love of literature also brought to mind The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It will connect you to characters you may have loved from Jenner’s previous novel, but also, simultaneously, if you haven’t read The Jane Austen Society, this works as a standalone novel in its own right.