Monday, December 9, 2013

Review: London Belles by Annie Groves

London Belles (Article Row #1)
By: Annie Groves
Publisher: Harper


With England on the cusp of a second war with Germany, Olive determines to take assure the future both herself and her daughter, Tilly, by opening her Article Row home to lodgers. Left widowed thanks to injuries her husband suffered in the Great War, and short on income with the recent passing of her father-in-law, to the chagrin of some her neighbors Olive advertises for respectable working girls in search of clean, reasonably priced room and board. The all-too-eager to grow up Tilly, working in the financial office of St. Bart's, London's oldest hospital, discovers their first lodger in the form of Sally, a nurse from Liverpool who fled to London to escape the pain of loss and betrayal, determined to hide from her past. Their second lodger, Agnes, receives a recommendation from the minister's wife -- raised in an orphanage, Agnes stayed with the only home she'd ever known until it was forced to relocate to the country, pending Hitler's potential attacks on London. Olive's carefully laid plans for respectable lodgers seems set until wires are crossed and a room is promised to the bold and brassy Dulcie, a clerk at Selfridges, seeking to escape her East End upbringing and determined to ruffle Olive's maternal reservations at every opportunity. The group's disparate personalities, secrets, and dreams threaten to bring more drama and heartache to her home than Olive bargained for -- but as the country edges closer to the brink of war, the women of No. 13 Article Row slowly find themselves united in an unexpectedly rewarding sisterhood that may just be the key to surviving the coming storm.

World War II-era history is a period that holds endless fascination for me, and as such I am always on the lookout for new fiction that promises to shed fresh light on those pivotal years of the twentieth century. After Annie Groves's novels appeared in my Amazon recommendations several times, I finally decided to explore her wartime-era fiction (and I'm not gonna lie, I loved the candy-colored covers!). Groves is one of the pen names of prolific British novelist Penny Jordan, who appears to have produced fiction at a rate -- and with a resulting popularity -- to warrant being likened to perhaps Danielle Steel or Mary Higgins Clark (please be kind, those are my best guesses!). :)

While wartime history in general is always of interest to me, I find women's history in particular during this time period fascinating as opportunities for women to develop careers and lives outside the traditional realms of home and family flourished. With men volunteering -- or being conscripted -- in droves, opportunities for women in those jobs traditional held by men (i.e., factories, etc.) exploded. Where fiction of this ilk might typically choose to focus on a "Rosie the Riveter" type heroine, here Groves sheds welcome light on the lives of women on the homefront, seeking to survive and thrive under wartime rationing, bombing raids, and the restrictions that come with making one's home on an island under veritable siege from Hitler's blitzkrieg. Groves's wartime fiction is ostensibly in part based on family history and reminiscences, occasionally lending London Belles the flavor of a memoir. The characters inhabiting Olive's Article Row home come to life on the page with the gentle feel of the romanticized time period -- one is given the sense of revisiting history through the sentimental, sepia-toned lens of the British stiff-upper-lip sensibility.

I loved the unlikely group of women with which Groves populates her novel. From the oft-times overly protective, duty-bound Olive to Dulcie, the sultry Selfridges' employee always skirting on the edge of decorum, to Sally, a dedicated nurse whose professionalism in the workplace belies the personal wounds -- and stunted maturity -- haunting her personal life, the women of Article Row must navigate broken hearts and questions of morals while seeking to live in something resembling peaceful accord. Groves's characterizations might like the clarity and spice I generally crave in my fiction, but she her prose with moments of unexpected warmth and depth that make London Belles an enjoyable foray into the realm of popular British fiction.

Clocking in at well over four hundred pages, London Belles is overly long, in desperate need of editing to tighten the plot (if I had a dollar for every time the word "whilst" appeared in this book, I'd be a rich woman), and arguably overly sentimental, but for all that I enjoyed it and look forward to exploring more of Groves's backlist. If this novel is any indication, Groves's World War II fiction is going to prove the historical equivalent of contemporary chick-lit, and as such I am thrilled to have discovered her work. Despite the lack of polish in her characterizations, I genuinely liked Olive, Tilly, Agnes, Sally, and Dulcie, and I look forward to subsequent volumes and the opportunity to see these women grow and navigate the murky waters of rationing, the proliferation of black market goods, and the ever-present threat of bomb raids -- all whilst (I couldn't help it) coping with the changing mores of the time and the tantalizing promise of romance.

About the book:

London Belles is a tale of four very different young women thrown together by war. Finding freedom and independence – as well as love, passion and heartbreak – for the very first time, a unique bond is formed as the hostilities take their toll on Britain.

United by chance, bound together in times of need...

When tragedy strikes, Olive is forced to seek lodgers. Three girls come knocking at her door, each in need of a roof over their heads.

Sally has left Liverpool to work as a nurse in London and when she arrives she is a shell of her former self. Where once stood a vivacious, sociable girl, now stands one plagued by homesickness and a betrayal that is devastatingly fresh in her mind.

Dulcie is living the high life in the West End, a world away from her home in Stepney. Working at Selfridges gives her access to the most fashionable clothes and makeup, but at home she is the black sheep of the family; always second to her sister. So she decides it's time to make a bid for freedom.

Agnes grew up in an orphanage, having been left on the steps as a new-born baby. But with war looming, and the orphanage relocating to the country, she must now seek out a job and lodgings. But with change comes exciting new opportunities, worlds away from the life she's known…

As the women prepare for war, all of their futures hang in the balance. Soon their lives will change irrevocably and the home that binds the London Belles is no longer the sanctuary they once sought.


A Vintage Nerd said...

Must read-sounds super fab-thanks for the great review!! xox

Unknown said...

@Daffny - I hope you enjoy it! Thanks! :)