Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Orphaned young, Violet Wheeler has been brought up by her aunt - but after Winnie's death, she feels like she’s lost everything. With no-one to turn to, she has to rely on the goodwill of the community to help her out.
At the Jubilee drapers, amongst the spools of ribbon, skeins of silk and latest thirties fashions, Violet finds a refuge. She’s offered a chance to get back on her feet, and with that an unexpected chance to discover love. It’s only when a forgotten piece of jewellery with a mysterious note surfaces that Violet is thrown back in to the past again, and starts to wonder what secrets there might be in her family’s history.
As Violet becomes desperate to find answers about her mother and father, long-buried secrets threaten the stable life she’s been building. Can her new friends steer Violet towards a happy ending against all the odds?
Increasingly I find myself drawn to books in the saga vein as they offer nice, easy, quick reads with good storylines. I like to alternate between books of a more serious nature, 'chick-lit' and historical fiction and the saga genre provides the perfect antidote when I need something light. Again with this book The Shop Girls of Chapel Street I have discovered a fabulous author in Jenny Holmes. This is only her second release but already she has been compared to the likes of Katie Flynn and Margaret Dickinson and for fans of the tv series Call the Midwife. I would liken Jenny's writing to that of Rosie Archer who I have only recently discovered. This book was a pleasure to read and gave the reader a detailed insight into the lives of women in a small English town in the early 1930's. Based in or around one or two specific streets the author builds up a picture of women and their families who didn't always have life as easy as they would like it but yet they always made the best of every opportunity and situation that presented itself. Initially with this book I did think there were a bit too many characters introduced in the first few chapters. I was attempting to read between the lines and discover who had been the focus of book one The Mill Girls of Albion Lane. It wasn't hard to find out what had happened but it only made me think should I have read this beforehand. After a while my fears were allayed as this is perfect to read as a stand alone as the book introduces readers to Violet Wheeler - an 18 year old girl on the cusp of womanhood who through circumstances that unfold at the beginning of the book finds herself faced with adversity and a life changing situation. Has she the strength to embrace new chances whilst not letting gossip and rumours get her down?
We meet Violet on a really happy occasion as she has been chosen as Gala Queen for the Whitsun celebrations. All her hard work making her gown has paid off and she embraces the festivities with glee and pleasure. But soon Violet's happy carefree days will be shattered but will her aspirations to be a seamstress go down the drain or has she courage to fight against the tide of change to become the person she knows she can be deep inside? Ever since her mother died at a young age Violet has lived with her Aunt Winnie and Uncle Donald. Her father Joe (Donald's brother) had been killed in the war and the family did the right thing and took Violet in. Violet enjoys a special, close relationship with Winnie but Donald for many years has appeared distant, cold and aloof. He has never mistreated her but still she doesn't feel the love or connection from her Uncle that a father figure should offer. Violet spends her days working for Ben Hutchinson in the grocer's shop on Chapel Street. He is a mean boss and doesn't have much time for her but she knows the family need every penny they can get despite the success of Donald's barber shop. The work is monotonous, rigid and humdrum and never varies from day to day. She dreams of working in Jubilee Drapers or establishing her own shop. Jubilee Drapers is run by Ida Thomson and Muriel Beanland and is an Aladdin's cave of colour, bolts of cloth, fabric, ribbons, buttons and lace. Unfortunately Violet's normal life is shattered when Winnie suddenly passes away. Violet is left bereft and also stuck with Donald who has little time for her and undergoes a personality transplant for what reasons we are not sure. We see an even more darker, mean spirited side emerge. Soon Violet finds herself evicted through no lack of trying to find the rent money. Donald abandons her to her fate but Violet is young, strong and determined and her friends will not see her go down the wrong path.
Throughout the book Violet grew in strength and her character development was excellent. It wasn't all plain sailing for her and she uncovers secrets that were meant to stay hidden forever which turn everything she thought was true on its head. This aspect of the storyline was really intriguing and the author did have us guessing right up until the end. When everything came to light it made me see characters in a different light and it went a long way in showing how people may act a certain way for a reason and not necessarily because they want to. Jenny Holmes did a fantastic job of creating such a vivid picture of life back in the 1930's, I really felt she could let her imagination run riot but also backed it up well with fact. Not having the threat of World War Two looming (as is often the focus of books in this genre) there was free rein to create a good solid storyline which is what Jenny did in the most effective of ways. I loved the sense of community spirit and how the women could drop into each others shops and have a chat. There was friendly rivalry between the Jubilee Drapers and Sylvie’s dressmaking shop. Violet has to keep everything going but does after a time allow time for herself by joining a theatre group and it was great to see her woes and troubles which had begun to weigh her down slightly dissipate when she was surrounded by the group.
A book in this genre wouldn't be complete without a bit of romance and Violet was described as a 'Cinderella, dreaming of her prince but always prevented from going to the ball'. Oh how I wished her dreams could come true and I was keen to discover would it be Eddie or Stan that would catch and take hold of Violet's heart? Eddie initially appeared like he hadn't much to offer Violet but over the course of the book he showed his true metal and stood by Violet when others began to have doubts about her character. Overall he came across as sincere, kind and a man who would always look for the truth instead of listening to and believing idle gossip. Stan on the other hand seemed a bit of a player, always up for a laugh and never quite able to commit to anything. But his storyline surprised me in the end.
What made The Shop Girls of Chapel Street such an enjoyable read was the numerous storylines ongoing that came together very well. There was no repetition or monotony and the book had a lovely flow to it. There was a more serious storyline included with Colin Barlow and I applaud Jenny for writing about this because the issue still happens today. It was sensitively and gracefully dealt with even though I didn't like what was happening to Violet. She could have let what was happening get her down but she was determined to make the most of her new job and not let one man ruin everything she had worked for. I admire Violet's gutsy attitude she knew who to keep close by her side and who to confide in and she was never ruthless in how she went about creating positivity in her life. Others weren't pushed aside in her quest to make her new life a success. When she attempts to uncover the secrets concealed since her birth her character shone through and I loved her all the more. She took everything in her stride and didn't loose the head where many others might have. I hadn't guessed what the big reveal would be and I like that in books. Furthermore this wasn't the entire focus of the story and truthfully it really didn't have enough meat to it to be the primary storyline.
This book proved to be another excellent addition to the saga genre and I thoroughly enjoyed the easy to read writing with a clever plot and loveable characters. I have now put Jenny's next release The Midwives of Raglan Road on my wish-list and look forward to its release in September. Meanwhile Violet and co will provide with you a delightful, entertaining read.
I'd like to thank Emma for reviewing The Shop Girls of Chapel Street which we received from the publisher via NetGalley.