Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Published by Hanover Square Press on April 6, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Inspired by the true World War II history of the few bookshops to survive the Blitz, The Last Bookshop in London is a timeless story of wartime loss, love and the enduring power of literature.
August 1939: London prepares for war as Hitler’s forces sweep across Europe. Grace Bennett has always dreamed of moving to the city, but the bunkers and blackout curtains that she finds on her arrival were not what she expected. And she certainly never imagined she’d wind up working at Primrose Hill, a dusty old bookshop nestled in the heart of London.
Through blackouts and air raids as the Blitz intensifies, Grace discovers the power of storytelling to unite her community in ways she never dreamed—a force that triumphs over even the darkest nights of the war.
This was an utterly charming read, and I was definitely charmed by it. I’m saying that in spite of, just yesterday, claiming that I seemed to be suffering from a bit of WW2 historical fiction fatigue. It appears that that book just wasn’t the right book, where The Last Bookshop in London definitely was.
When we, along with Grace and her bestie Viv, arrive in London in 1939, Primrose Books is far from the last bookshop in London. It’s just that the rest of them seem to be congregated on Paternoster Row, while Primrose Books is a bit off the beaten path – albeit a bit closer to where Grace and Viv take up lodgings with Mrs. Weatherford.
The young women are from Drayton, a country town the dust of which neither of them could shake off their shoes fast enough. Mrs. Weatherford grew up in Drayton, like the girls, but of an earlier generation. In fact, the generation of Grace’s late mother. And they were besties back then, just as Grace and Viv are now.
And there was a war coming then too. History, damn it all, repeats the worst of its patterns.
Grace needs Mrs. Weatherford’s help, in the form of Mrs. W’s ability to boss around pretty much everyone in her orbit – including Mr. Evans, the curmudgeonly owner of Primrose Books. Which is very much within the scope of her bossing.
Grace needs a job but doesn’t have a reference – and isn’t brazen enough to fake it the way that Viv most definitely is. Mr. Evans needs someone to brighten up both the store and his life for reasons that are not apparent when we and Grace first meet him, although his need certainly is.
And Grace, dives in with a will, even though she has no idea how to sell books because she hasn’t been much of a reader – at least not so far. But she understands marketing, as she’s done it before back in Drayton, and she’s good at organization, and she needs to work with/for/at Mr. Evans for 6 months in order to get a good reference. That’s the deal he made with Mrs. Weatherford. Grace just has to earn that reference, which will just take hard work and a bit of managing – of Mr. Evans, that is.
But the dark clouds of war that have been looming on the horizon much longer than anyone wants to admit turn into a full blown storm of German bombs, just as Grace gets her feet under her in London. A London that is now on fire.
Escape Rating A-: Although this story covers very large events, the London Blitz being the obvious exploding elephant in the story’s “room”, it’s not actually a big story. It isn’t about important people directing earth-shaking events – even though the earth does frequently shake under the nightly assault by German bombers.
Rather, this is a story about ordinary people rising to the occasion, managing through adversity, keeping calm, carrying on and doing their bit to keep themselves, their friends and their neighbors together in the face of their world seeming to fall apart.
And in the midst of grief, loss and rationing, bombs falling and spirits all too often falling right along with them, it’s also a story about the power of a good book to take a person – or a whole group of people in a bomb shelter – away from the worst parts of their here and now into someone else’s there and then. Knowing that when they come back from their imaginary adventure the world will seem just a bit less grim for both the tiny escape and the shared camaraderie.
Grace’s Primrose Books may not have actually been the “Last Bookshop in London” even in the story. But Paternoster Row, the center of the British publishing industry, was destroyed during the Blitz as described herein, taking most of London’s bookstores along with it.
In spite of the Blitz, the retreat from Dunkirk, the deaths among Grace’s family of choice in London, The Last Bookshop in London is actually a hopeful story. Not just because as readers we know the result of war, but because of the way that the community that Grace has built around herself and the bookstore rallies ‘round and lifts her up – along with themselves – at even the lowest moments of the story.
So, as I said at the very beginning, The Last Bookshop in London was simply a charming and lovely read. If you like historical fiction centered on World War II, especially about the British Homefront, and/or stories about the power of reading and stories to lift people up and carry them away, this is a story that will bring as big a smile to your face as the stories that Grace reads aloud do to all of her listeners.