Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Even though there was a war on, the Woolworths girls brought Christmas cheer to their customers
Best friends Sarah, Maisie and Freda are brought together by their jobs at Woolworths. With their loved ones away on the front line, their bonds of friendship strengthen each day. Betty Billington is the manager at Woolworths, and a rock for the girls, having given up on love . . . Until a mysterious stranger turns up one day – could he reignite a spark in Betty?
As the year draws to a close, and Christmas approaches, the girls must rely on each other to navigate the dark days that lie ahead . . .
With so much change, can their friendship survive the war?
Many thanks to Bethan James from Ed Pr for my copy of Christmas at Woolworths to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Christmas at Woolworths by Elaine Everest sees the return of my favourite characters from The Woolworth Girls. This festive sequel is a heart-warming read with the most beautiful cover that makes you feel all warm and cosy. It has been two years since I have read about these characters as The Butlins Girls, a stand alone novel, came between the first and second and book. So admittedly it did take me a couple of chapters to reacquaint myself with all the various characters and their connections to each other and the different things they are experiencing during the war that led to such death, devastation and destruction.
The opening chapter briefly focuses on June 1942, and then takes us back to Easter of that year, and then in turn brings us right up to Christmas. At first I thought had I missed a huge chunk of the story as one character Freda is travelling to Canterbury when it is bombed and she is fearful for the safety of two of her friends. The story is based in Erith so I wondered why had two girls gone there, it felt like I should have read something previously for the opening chapter to make sense but then as the story properly began we go back a few months and eventually the scenes with Freda did make more sense but I think some readers like myself might have some slight confusion with this.
After several chapters I settled back into the lives of Freda, Maisie, Sarah and Betty and their extended families and friends. The women have formed a unique bond and friendship all thanks to Woolworths where they are all employed. Times are continuing to rapidly change for everyone with no end to the war in sight. This story, from the midpoint onwards, I felt really moved the individual storyline of each woman on but for those that are new to this series there was just the right amount of information provided as to what had happened previously so as to make the reader feel they weren't missing out. These women are a group who are there for each other through thick and thin, through the good times and bad. They share everything and open up to each other and when someone can't see the happiness that awaits in front of them a gentle nudge in the right direction is always provided. Their friendships are ones to be admired and to strive for in our own lives and the sense of community and togetherness radiates from the pages.
I always wonder if the people living during the war, and these characters, knew in 1939 how long the war would be, and all the horrors that would ensue, would they have stayed so positive and upbeat as they did. But I suppose that's what got people through the tough times and the constant state of fear and apprehension continuing to have a sense of optimism and self belief that things would turn out okay, the alternative didn't bear thinking about. This book isn't all doom and gloom by any means, yes the realities of living at the time are explored, the rationing, the make do with regards to clothes and special treats and luxuries, the constant threat of air raids and bombings, but alongside this the author does a very good job of bringing to life a story of hope, friendship and love. One in which the women who feature are resilient and strong and only wish the best for each other and for a positive outcome to the war.
Ruby Castleton, grandmother of Sarah, in my opinion really was the dominant character in this book but in a good way. She became like the matriarch to everybody and was the glue that held everything together. Her house became a focus for many and she was there for everyone, always pushing her own worries and fears aside. She offered a kind word or a shoulder to cry on. Ruby was someone who knew everything that was going on but could always be trusted to keep a confidence. She was in total contrast to her irritating neighbour Vera, whose scenes at times had me laughing at her pure ignorance but at others I detested her for the words that came out of her mouth. She needed a good talking to and I couldn't understand why Ruby at some stages didn't give her a big slap. It was enjoyable to see a nice little romance brewing for Ruby as she needed something nice to happen for herself as opposed to always doing things for others. Ruby demonstrates her caring nature when she takes in evacuees Gwyneth Evans and her daughter Myfi, there was clearly a lot more going on than we were first led to believe and I became ever more intrigued as their story unfolded. It was nice to have new characters included as it helped keep the story fresh.
Of course all the old favourites are present, Sarah still works at Woolworths as well as taking care of her daughter Georgina. Perhaps she didn't have as much focus as before but there was always a worry for her with her husband Alan away working training pilots and then leaving to fight in the war himself. Sarah, like so many others, must have always been on edge thinking what could happen to my husband given how brief a time they had been able to spend with each other since the outbreak of war. Maisie, who always seems so glamorous and together was battling with her own demons, her fear that she can't have children and therefore her marriage to David would never feel complete. There seemed to be an awful lot of pressure on her to have children and it must have been a strain to think that that was the one role you had in life or so many were led to believe at the time. I felt she put herself down a lot and she wasn't as vibrant and happy as she had been in the previous book. I hoped her storyline would have a successful outcome.
At times the story did feel quite slow in places and nothing much happened, it did become slightly repetitive before picking up the pace again. I kept looking for mentions of Christmas given the title of the book but it only came very near the end and given such a beautiful cover I was disappointed but this is my only minor gripe about the book for I loved everything else about it. The two stand out characters for me this time amongst all the smaller storylines were Betty and Freda.
Betty in the first book seemed cold and aloof and the girls were in awe of her. As manager of Woolworths she had a certain reputation to uphold which I could understand but at the time I didn't understand her reticence to warm up a bit and share the load and her worries. Thankfully here we really saw a new side of Betty emerging. Yes she still longs for the love of her life, lost to her in World War One and she carries alot of guilt around, but she seemed more approachable now and more willing to join in with the girls activities and lives outside of shop hours. A new arrival sees lots of changes for Betty and it brought a smile to my face. I felt she was getting ready to embark on a new stage of her life and she felt ready to let go of a past that she cannot change. It was about time she got some happiness in her life, she was more than deserving of it.
Freda too really stepped up to the plate in this book. She longs for a boyfriend as she feels everyone around her is settling down and a life of domestic bliss will be there waiting for them when the war is eventually declared over. What will she do if she has no love of her life? Freda pushes her feelings aside and I am glad a 'hunt' for a man didn't ensue as more pressing matters were at hand. Freda displayed great maturity in this book. The fact she continued her job at Woolworths as well as taking on voluntary work with the fire brigade showed a more grown up sensible side to her and she was a character to be admired in the book. Yet never did she forget her friends in fact not one of the characters did which only enforced the message of the book ever more deeply.
Christmas at Woolworths was a lovely read. Fans of family wartime sagas will love it as did I. I'm already looking forward to the next visit in April 2018 as the story continues in Wartime at Wooloworths.
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