Reviewed by Emma Crowley
London, 1914: one ordinary day, three girls arrive for work at London's renowned Foyles bookshop. But when war with Germany is declared their lives will never be the same again...
Alice has always been the 'sensible' one in her family – especially in comparison with her suffrage-supporting sister! But decidedly against her father's wishes, she accepts a job at Foyles Bookshop;and for bookworm Alice it's a dream come true.
But with the country at war, Alice's happy world is shattered in an instant. Determined to do what she can, Alice works in the bookshop by day, and risks her own life driving an ambulance around bomb-ravaged London by night. But however busy she keeps herself, she can't help but think of the constant danger those she loves are facing on the frontline...
Many thanks to Aria publishers via NetGalley for my copy of The Foyles Bookshop Girls to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
The Foyles Bookshop Girls is the début novel from Elaine Roberts and the first in a planned trilogy. It centres around three young women who work in the famous London book shop at a time when the world is facing unrest and uncertainty. There is the threat of the unions going on strike coupled with the fact women were campaigning for equals women’s rights with men and also the right to vote but this becomes over shadowed with the outbreak of World War One. People's lives are thrown into chaos, disarray and turmoil as the men of the country are forced to leave their homes and fight for their country. The story centres around three women, Alice Taylor, Molly Cooper and Victoria Appleton. This first books direct focus seemed to be on Alice. The two other girls do feature and have their own stories but I sensed quite early on that perhaps we will learn more details about them the further the trilogy progresses.
The author did a fantastic job of setting the scene and developing the atmosphere and feelings of the people at the time. The only thing I would say is that I would have liked a chapter or two scattered throughout the book that was set abroad. Perhaps detailing how the girls loved ones were faring on the battle fronts, I felt it would enhance the book even more. But on further reflection, I suppose it was more in keeping as to how much news those at home received that we didn't get to observe the men at war. The women and families left behind were always on tender hooks waiting for a letter or when the young boy on his bike arrived at the house with a telegram. They didn't know the horrors their relatives and loved ones were experiencing, maybe the author wanted the reader to experience those same feelings of apprehension, dread and worry. For that is what I certainly did feel at numerous points within the story. But the women had to be strong, life had to carry on on a daily basis as best it could. For if people doubted the war would be won and that those away fighting would never return then they wouldn't have been able to continue on with life and have a happy place for the soldiers to return to.
Alice's family were not what I would call a loving, close family unit and this I would put down to their father Luke. He was stern and never showed his emotions. I felt at times the family lived in fear of doing the wrong thing and therefore if that did happen he would explode. Their mother Sarah was portrayed as meek and at times subservant. But both Alice and her sister Lily had a flare in them, a spirit, women ahead of their times. They could both see that times were changing and that the role of women and families needed to change with them. Lily was adventurous and stood up for what she believed in particular with the suffragette movement and to also become a police woman during the war took guts and determination which she had in spades. I would have loved for her to feature even more because I found her to be an interesting and gutsy character. With both their brothers, Robert and Charles, away fighting and also Alice's new fiancée Freddie away the family had a lot to deal with and as Luke was never supportive or never shared in their worry the women showed how courage and determination will get you through anything no matter what life throws at you. I dislike using this word in relation to a character but I really did detest Luke and his actions and stance with regard to the war. It would take a major event before the wool was pulled from his eyes, before he fully engaged in a realistic, human like way with his family. When this did occur I did understand him much better but my opinions of him didn't alter dramatically.
Foyles, the bookshop provided the backdrop for the girls meeting. It seemed like such a wondrous bookshop, filled to the brim with many worlds and adventures waiting to be explored between the covers of the innumerable books. I found the work routine of the girls very interesting and even little things like the way books were selected and paid for shows how different life is now. As war looms ever larger in the girls lives they each go through many hardships and ups and downs. Their friendship blossomed and deepened as they stood by one another offering support, comfort and solace when needed.
Alice, in my mind was the strongest of all. She was the root and anchor for everyone in the book. Victoria was dealing with her own personal family situation given a tragedy that had occurred several years before and I loved how Alice could see she was struggling and wanted to help her friend. The way Victoria reacted was not what I would have expected but in reality she was struggling and didn't have the words to express fully what she was going through. In a way she was also had her pride and was stubborn but maybe its when we are most vulnerable that we have to accept defeat and let the people who love us in to give their backing and offer a little sound advice and encouragement.
I don't think we know Molly that well having now finished the book but as I have mentioned maybe that will change during the next two books. She too experiences her sweetheart leaving and the emotional repercussions of the fall out of this. She seemed to flit around the outer circle of the group and appear every now and again, at times she was almost forgotten about. In general, I think the book had many storylines and some were explored better than others. Some were mentioned than instantly forgotten and I felt I wanted to know more, to scratch beneath the surface and really get into the hearts and minds of the characters. Maybe scaling back ever so slightly on some aspects of the story and concentrating wholeheartedly on just one or more would have made for a more in-depth read.
Alice remains my favourite character. I thought she grew up so much over the course of the story and she surprised both herself and her family with her actions. She is experiencing something that should be happening as normal with Freddie beside her and surrounded by her family but that was not going to be the case for quite some time. So she was determined to whether the storm as best she could and I believe she did this with dignity, honesty and was to be admired at all times.
I'm keen to see how The Foyles Bookshop Girls series will further develop with The Foyles Girls at War and Christmas at the Foyles Bookshop still to come in 2019. This was a promising début from Elaine Roberts not without a few minor faults but none the less an enjoyable, intriguing and emotional read
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