A Novel by Madeline Martin
I belong to a reading group near my home away from home in Florida. It’s my first, and quite a delight to be able to share thoughts about books with other people. Most recently, we’ve been reading The Last Bookshop in London, subtitled “A Novel of World War Two” by an American author named Madeline Martin. She published it in 2021 and it’s been a bestseller for years. I rather like “bookshop” over “bookstore.” How about you?
Well, the subject of bookstores is immediately of interest to me, especially after having spent some very pleasant hours at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, which has to be one of the finest bookstores I’ve ever visited, with its winding stairways and AHA! corridors, nooks and crannies where people curl up here and there on chairs and sofas reading books. What fun!
Shakespeare and Co. is several discrete but adjoining shops, including a rare books enclave and a coffee shop with great lattes and most wonderful pastries.
Among the other books I’ve bought there is a John Lane the Bodly Head 1937 edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses which, you may know, was first published in 1922 by Silvia Beach, who created the iconic bookstore. But I digress.
Reading Ms. Martin’s first novel, what was something of an anomaly to me was the fact that an American author would write a book about a London bookstore and British people, because the cast of characters is all English (although their speech is distinctly American). The novel is set in London; Martin carries off the setting pretty well, apparently because she is quite a good researcher and proud to let you know that. Her specialty is historical fiction, and this certainly qualifies. (I secretly wonder if Shakespeare and Co. was her model for the Primrose Hill Bookshop.) It’s a story that could be told anywhere in the world, about a young woman named Grace who leaves her small village and provincial community to seek her adult life in the big city. Something that happens with many young people, yesterday and today, whether it’s New York, San Francisco or London. We are happy to join Grace on her quest.
In searching for a copy at Books-a-Million I learned this book is quite popular in reading groups. I could soon see why it is, for at its heart it’s a (Young Adult) romance, not only between people but an emerging love asffair with books–and of course there’s never anything wrong with that. The characters are well drawn, well portrayed, struggling through the great sadness of seeing their London bombed, bombed and bombed again by the Nazis. One cannot help but draw parallels to what Russia is doing to Ukraine now, and what every predatory army has done to every city in the world for all the thousands of years since we began fighting, fighting and fighting some more with each other. And so this senseless destruction puts one on tenterhooks as the book develops, to learn whether or when Primrose Hill Bookshop will be bombed, like everything else, or whether it will escape.
That becomes kind of the point of the story, because we need to learn about Grace’s and her compatriots’ resilience. And beyond this about Grace, who begins the story without having much interest in reading books at all, and ends up being not only an avid reader but a book-sharer of everything she loves about books with other people. It’s a very sweet story in that respect, even while sometimes rather saccharine and simplistic, but even in the context of this book it’s not a bad thing. I can genuinely recommend it as light reading.