Reviewed by Emma Crowley
September, 1941: Mary arrives in war-torn London nursing a broken heart and a painful secret.
When she is offered her dream post as an assistant in the fabric department at Liberty store, she knows this is the fresh start she needs. Amid the store’s vibrant prints and sumptuous interiors, Mary finds a new family who can help her to heal.
But not everyone will give Mary such a warm welcome, and the trauma of her past will soon catch up with her.
As Mary and the Liberty Girls endure the heartache and uncertainty of war, it will take a steady heart to keep the magic of Christmas alive.
Many thanks to Random House UK via NetGalley for my copy of Christmas at Liberty’s to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Christmas at Liberty’s is the first in a new series from Fiona Ford and it follows the fortunes of a special group of women who work at the world famous Liberty’s store in London. The book shows us how even in wartime there can be magic at Christmas as unique and solid bonds and friendships are formed which will be tested to the max but the question remains can the women weather the storms that are about to come their way? Can Liberty’s work that magic it is renowned for?
I was really impressed by this book from Fiona Ford, I found myself instantly engaged with the characters right from their introduction as each person was so varied and each had their own issues and personal problems they were battling through combined with also trying to keep up a positive face during the war years. The war is not the dominant factor here in this book rather it is the background to the story. The women’s personal lives are allowed to step into the spotlight and Liberty’s itself becomes a special character in its own right. That’s not to say the war is never mentioned, it is and it had to have been given its affect on people’s lives and how they lived on a day to day basis. But it was refreshing to focus on the shop and its workers and to see how some fun, enjoyment, amusement and gratification could make itself known amidst the darkest and most upsetting of times.
For as long as Mary can remember she has been brought to London at Christmas to go shopping with her mother and sister. Seeing the Christmas window display at Liberty’s is something she looks forward to every year. This wondrous store is a place where dreams come true, where things sparkle and glisten and rolls of patterned fabric adorn its shelves. Charm and enchantment abound within each department and to Mary it is a unique place which will always hold a special place in her heart.
Fast forward many years later and it is 1941 and Mary Holmes–Fotherington is a vastly different person from the young girl who once longed for the visit to Liberty’s. She steps off a train in London about to embark on a new life through no choice of her own but through circumstance. This new situation has been forced upon her and she has no choice but to grab any new opportunity that will come her way, for if she doesn’t she fears she may end up in the gutter. With no one to support her and estranged from her family Mary must commence the next step in her life journey. But little does she realise despite such heartbreak that she is attempting to keep hidden that this next phase might just be the very tonic she needed.
What a change to see a character who had come from a well off background and one who had led a life of privilege to now being someone who has to search for a room to stay in and then find a job. It was a total 360 from most main characters in the saga genre. Mary had been in the ATS, the women’s branch of the army, but the reader is not immediately privy to the reasons for her new situation. I could guess at certain things but it wasn’t until the author choose to reveal the final piece of the puzzle did things become fully clear to me and that’s the way it should be. Mary was brave person to go from a life of comfort and support to having nothing and no communication from her family. She knew whatever her next step, whatever life choice she made then that would determine how things would play out for her. She had guts and determination and I loved how timer and time again she stood up for herself when faced with things she felt were unjust.
Mary was innovative but at the same time not afraid to admit that she wasn’t perfect and she had many faults. Even though she may have been down at heel so to speak she embraced the little things and the hands of friendship that were being offered. She pushed her pride to one side and she became a strong leading character around which various other characters and storylines flowed out from. I thoroughly enjoyed reading of her transformation and how when given the chance to interview for Liberty’s she went for it despite knowing nothing about sewing or fabrics. She was innovative and a quick learner and with the special group of women at Liberty’s there was no way there were going to let Mary fall again. She had endured and suffered too much that surely she deserved some happiness?
As Mary finds a room to rent from loveable landlady Dot, who quickly became the mother figure of the story, she meets Alice who is pregnant and works part time at Liberty’s. Her husband Luke is a flying officer in the army and she pines for him although she knows he is doing his bit for his country. Thanks to Alice, Mary soon has a job at Liberty’s and a steep learning curve ensues as well many adventures and ups and downs. Alice wasn’t my favourite character but I still admired how she was battling through and remaining positive that Luke would come home safely to see his family and new baby.
But what I really loved about this book was the sense of friendship and family that the author built and built upon the further I progressed through the story. It was like everyone joined together as one big family unit and although the shop couldn’t have been the same as the pre war years given all the rationing they all still made the best of whatever was presented to them. A visit to Liberty’s was made to be a memorable and significant experience and the girls made sure of this at every available opportunity. Behind the shop floor there was lots of other goings on which kept me riveted and rapidly turning the pages and it made me feel as if I had turned back in time and even though I have never been to Liberty’s it really did come alive and the women’s stories leaped off the pages as they were interesting, well thought out and compassionate.
Life for Mary wasn’t all plain sailing and her boss Mabel Matravers certainly didn’t give her an easy time but I loved how Mary wasn’t afraid and wouldn’t give into bullying and threats. Mabel was a horrible character and even at the very end I still felt no sympathy for her, she deserved everything she got. Her thoughtless conniving actions led to a desperate heartache for another character and I could see no way of forgiving her. Mabel ruled with an iron fist and as she discovers things about Mary she lords it over her knowing she can reveal something with a few little words which would see the new life Mary had created for herself come tumbling down very quickly. I hoped that Rose who worked in the office and Flo, the fabric and haberdashery supervisor, would see through Mabel and the way she was treating Mary and be supportive to their new colleague and friend. For that is what the trio became alongside Dot a group of people who share one common bond, that of working in Liberty’s.
Through this friendships are solidified, a community spirit is evoked and they turn into one big family with a ring of friendship at its very core and it was just so heart-warming to see this. It never felt forced, over the top or fake, instead it was natural and probably very much common at the time. With so many men away fighting the women stepped up to fill their roles and in doing so they created their own little band of support where happiness, family and love where at its centre. That’s not to say life was a bed of roses, it was far from it as the storyline surrounding Mabel proved. It turned me against her even more and my dislike for her only intensified. I don’t think she could justify her actions at all.
There are many messages to be gleamed from this book and the author conveys them all so well. Life is fragile and we should make the most of it, more so than ever during the war years. Love, compassion, friendship and family will see you though the hardest of times. Fun and laughter should always have a place in your life and this is demonstrated as the women prepare for a special wedding? But whose is it? Is there unexpected love around the corner for more than one person? Can Liberty’s retain that sense of pride and class it has maintained for so many years or will the war prove too costly and destructive? Can Mary despite being so loyal, selfless and loving find the one piece of the puzzle that will quell her deeply hidden distress and hurt? One thing is for sure working under the roof of an extraordinary shop with an equally as extraordinary group of women all these questions may very well find answers. But to find out you must pick up this wonderful read which highlights people who believe in each other, who take care of each other and who stand up for each other.
Christmas at Liberty’s was a fabulous and marvellous addition to my festive reading this year and I can’t wait for the next instalment which sees The Liberty Girls arrive in May 2019.
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