Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Can romance blossom in times of trouble?
It's 1938 and as the threat of war hangs over the country, Sarah Caselton is preparing for her new job at Woolworths. Before long, she forms a tight bond with two of her colleagues: the glamorous Maisie and shy Freda. The trio couldn't be more different, but they immediately form a close-knit friendship, sharing their hopes and dreams for the future.
Sarah soon falls into the rhythm of her new position, enjoying the social events hosted by Woolies and her blossoming romance with young assistant manager, Alan. But with the threat of war clouding the horizon, the young men and women of Woolworths realize that there are bigger battles ahead. It's a dangerous time for the nation, and an even more perilous time to fall in love . . .
The Woolworth Girls is the début novel from Elaine Everest set just before and during World War Two in the riverside town of Erith. But what sets this delightful book apart from all the numerous other books in the genre of women's wartime sagas is the fact that in this case the war is more of a backdrop to the story, as Woolworths takes centre stage. I'll readily admit I don't know that much about Woolworths as it was well before my time but from reading this book I can sense it was a British institution which holds fond memories for many people. I did have a vague memory of my parents mentioning there was a Woolworths in the city where I live in Ireland years ago. So I double checked with my dad and he said there had been on the site where currently Penneys/Primark stands which is ironic really as Primark are a giant in the industry just as Woolworths once were. It highlights to me that Woolworths was a special place and was really successful if even my small city had a shop here.
The overall feeling you get from this book despite some of the hardships the girls and their families have to endure is one of family, friend and community spirit and togetherness. Woolworths was the focal point for so many generations as it gave employment in times of need and seemed to be able to weather any storm that came its way. It was really refreshing to read a slightly different angle on the war time drama books yet to still read a book with love, support and friendship at its centre. The cover for this book is so bright and inviting that I couldn't wait to dive in and I admit to reading this book in a few hours. It was a bit slow to start but on reflection I realised the author really had done a wonderful job of introducing her characters, their backgrounds and the setting giving the reader time to become acquainted with Sarah, Freda and Maisie. Thereafter the story really took on a life of its own and you become so involved and concerned as to the outcome of each and every person you have come to know and care about. The girls form a trio who set out to prove true friendship can win the hardest of battles.
We first meet the girls in 1938 as there are rumours of war breaking out but everyone sincerely hopes that it is scaremongering and that their beloved men will not have to abandon them to fight on the continent. All the residents of Erith wish their lives can continue on as normal but war has its way of impacting on each and every person and their everyday existence whether they want it to or not. Sarah is 20 and interviewing for a sales assistant position at Woolworths. She has recently arrived in Erith to live with her grandmother Ruby (she herself is a breakout star of this book - a kind, loving, no nonsense woman whom everyone would wish could be their nan) escaping her life in Devon with a mother who constantly puts her down and places unnatural expectations on her daughter. Naturally Sarah is apprehensive about applying for a job in a shop which is famous and held in such high regard by so many. Whilst waiting in the queue to be interviewed by the indomitable Miss. Billington (personnel officer at the Erith branch) Sarah meets shy, unassuming Freda and brash, glamorous Maisie who seems to ooze confidence and panache. Right from the moment the three girls meet and are subsequently employed at the shop a bond is formed. A bond which came across as being very realistic and that the girls would always look out for each other. They would be there for nights out and dances but on the other hand to offer consolation, comfort and support if ever needed. It was as if the girls had known each other for years and the reader began to feel this too as if I had been reading of this three remarkable women and their story for a long time. Freda has had a tough past which she does not reveal to her new found friends. She has escaped from a harsh home in the hopes of finding her brother Lenny who himself did not leave under the best of circumstances. Over the course of the novel you could see Freda slowly start to blossom instead of forever living in fear but I did think she could have been more open to her friends. As for Maisie she was a character who presented an outgoing front, a woman who liked to be stylish and fashionable and held a deep love for her husband but underneath her persona she too was vulnerable.
Elaine Everest really brought Woolworths to life and for someone who has never experienced it I could visualise everything so clearly in my mind. Its vibrant bustling atmosphere as housewives came in for all their bits and pieces and a bit of a gossip, also how it was such a treasured and valued shop where anything could be bought. The girls love for the store and their friendship and families was lovely to read about. I felt equally as familiar with the sections of the shop and its employees as I did the with Sarah's nan Ruby and the residents of the street where they lived.
Of course any book like this has to have some element of romance and it's Alan Gilbert a trainee manager at the shop who catches Sarah's eye that very first day. Their romance is tentative at first but Sarah soon realises if war breaks out and compulsory conscription is brought in she will be left alone. She follows her heart and initially I did think god she certainly is rushing into things but then one must take a step back and look at things from a different perspective. The women at the time lived a vastly different life from what we live today and they had no idea what was around the corner so they had to grab love when it came along as they had no idea just how long they had together or if once war had begun would their sweethearts ever come back? 'Grab your happiness while you can. No one knows what's around the next corner'. In that way Sarah has to be admired and for the remainder of the book as war is declared she is left along with Freda and Maisie to navigate all the terrors and hardships the next few years would throw at them in more ways than one. This line really struck a chord with me and summed up how many women at the time must have felt whether they married or just in a relationship. 'Married women became single again'.
As war breaks out Sarah and her friends have to adjust to a different life to what they once knew. Alan is away and so to is Maisie's husband. They continue working in the shop which itself is like a form of therapy as it must be kept going and it takes the girls minds off everything that is going on. All the little sub plots that had bubbling away in the background up until this point really began to show fruition know and I became even deeper engrossed in the story. The characters showed their true grit and determination and I have to say even though Sarah was struggling with her own issues she always made time for others and in doing this allowed people who had been mere background characters previously to come forward and let them shine.
Elaine Everest had a lovely way with her writing in making you believe any of the characters featured could have been real. My only minor complaint is that I felt Maisie although she did play her part and I suppose Freda too didn't get as much of a prominent role as I would have wished. I felt I didn't get inside their heads as much as I did that of Sarah. I understand the home that Sarah shared with her nan as well as Woolworths itself were the main focus of the book but still I felt I should have connected more with Freda and Maisie. The connection I felt to Sarah was real and I understood how hurt she felt regarding what happens with Alan but I also got a real sense of a young woman who had to grow up pretty quickly but took everything in her stride and gained in confidence and responsibility which showed the she had a spirit that no outside forces could break.
I relished every minute of The Woolworths Girls and believe a fresh new voice in women's war time saga writing has been discovered in Elaine Everest. The characters and the shop itself came alive on the page and there were plenty of twists and turns with the plot that had you hooked and rooting for a positive outcome for all concerned. The war hadn't ended when the book concludes so I wonder does Elaine plan to return to this setting and this group of characters again in a future story as I myself found it hard to let them go. The characters are likeable but I won't say relatable as thankfully most people reading this won't have experience of war but the fact that readers in the present can become engaged so vividly and realistically engaged with the past means the author has done a good job. Elaine's love for Woolworths, the girls who worked there and its customers shone through. Her research was impeccable and her love for her characters and her storyline oozed from the pages.
The Woolworth Girls is an accomplished début novel and already I am looking forward to hearing more from Elaine Everest in the future. At the end of the book I was delighted to discover The Butlins Girls will be the next release from Elaine and if it is anything as good as the story of Sarah and co I know I am in for a real treat.
Many thanks to Sophie Goodfellow from ED PR for my copy of The Woolworths Girls to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.