Grace Bennett and her best friend Viv move to London in 1939 just before the beginning of the war. They move in with Mrs. Weatherford, a friend of Grace’s mother, and her son Colin. With Mrs. Weatherford’s help, Grace gets a job with Primrose Hill Books. She tidies and organizes the shop for Mr. Evans and slowly makes herself indispensible. When war is declared, she volunteers as a warden with Air Raid Precautions and begins reading aloud inside tube stations during the Blitz.
Part of my issue with the novel is the character of Grace. She is so saccharine. Everyone seems to love her as soon as they meet her; both Mrs. Weatherford and Mr. Evans “adopt” her and become parental figures. The people who are not enamoured with her are eventually won over by her compassion and generosity. The first handsome man who comes into the shop is immediately romantically attracted to her. Her only flaws are that she is somewhat shy and considers herself not to be brave.
The book is so predictable because it is so formulaic. After the first few chapters, I was able to correctly predict who would survive and who wouldn’t. Even the title suggests what will happen to Paternoster Row and what will not happen to Primrose Hill Books. The novel is historically accurate, but seems to just check off items from a list: air raids, blackouts, food rationing, victory gardens, evacuation of children, etc.
The author tends to tell rather than show. How many times must we be told that “no one in the world had the spirit of the British. They were fighters. They could take it”? Grace finds courage because “she was British. What’s more she was a Londoner, baptized as such by the firestorm of war, by bombings and incendiaries.” When St. Paul’s Cathedral is undamaged, “It was a mark of the British spirit, that even in the face of such annihilation and loss, they too had kept standing. ‘London can take it.’”
When Grace begins working at the bookshop, she is not a reader. Of course she becomes a book lover – because a handsome man recommends a book to her! When she finally opens that book, “Word after word, page after page, she was pulled deeper into a place she had never experienced and walked in the footsteps of a person she’d never been.” Then, over and over again, it is repeated that books provide pleasure and “an escape from exhaustion and bombs and rationing.” Books make Grace a better person because they provide a “profound understanding for mankind”: “Over time, she had found such perspectives made her a more patient person, more accepting of others.” All of this is true, but the reader doesn’t need to be told this if events clearly show this. Nonetheless, the author feels compelled to repeat that “It is through books that we can find the greatest hope” and “Books . . . [are] a reminder that we always have hope” and “For in a world such as theirs, with people of spirit and love, and with so many different tales of strength and victory to inspire, there would always be hope.” I do not like being treated like a stupid reader!
This is a book for those who want an unchallenging read. It slavishly follows the historical fiction formula with a strong romance element. It did not engage me and is totally unmemorable.