This post is part of a blog tour organised by Random Things Blog Tours. I received a free copy of the book in return for an honest review.
“1938: She was one of the six sparkling Mitford sisters, known for her stinging quips, stylish dress, and bright green eyes. But Nancy Mitford’s seemingly dazzling life was really one of turmoil: with a perpetually unfaithful and broke husband, two Nazi sympathizer sisters, and her hopes of motherhood dashed forever.
“With war imminent, Nancy finds respite by taking a job at the Heywood Hill Bookshop in Mayfair, hoping to make ends meet, and discovers a new life.
“Present Day: When book curator Lucy St. Clair lands a gig working at Heywood Hill she can’t get on the plane fast enough. Not only can she start the healing process from the loss of her mother, it’s a dream come true to set foot in the legendary store. Doubly exciting: she brings with her a first edition of Nancy’s work, one with a somewhat mysterious inscription from the author.
“Soon, she discovers her life and Nancy’s are intertwined, and it all comes back to the little London bookshop — a place that changes the lives of two women from different eras in the most surprising ways.
A confession: despite being a massive bookworm and history enthusiast, until I read The Mayfair Bookshop, by Eliza Knight, my knowledge of the Mitford family was limited to ‘they were upper-class, and some of them were Nazis’. This book, which tells the story of eldest sister Nancy, has piqued my interest and made me want to read more about, and by, them.
We follow Nancy from early adulthood to middle age. Despite her aristocratic background, she ends up leading a life that is hardly privileged. Married on the rebound to a spendthrift philanderer who can’t seem to hold down a job, she keeps the bailiffs at bay with earnings from her book and article writing and, later on, her job at Heywood Hill, the eponymous bookshop.
She plays her part in the Second World War by administering first aid, looking after refugees, and doing a bit of spying. Suffering brutal miscarriages, her dream of being a mother never materialises. In her early 40s, she finally puts herself first and finds the success, meaning and fulfilment she’s been lacking, a resolution I found cheering and inspiring.
Through Nancy, we get to know the other Mitfords. Like the author, I find it really interesting how siblings in large families interact and turn out so different from one another, so this element of The Mayfair Bookshop fascinated me. I was horrified, yet riveted, to read about how extensively Nancy’s sisters Diana and Unity embraced fascism.
Another sister, Jessica, went in the opposite direction as a communist, while the three remaining siblings, Pam, Deborah, and sole brother Tom, come across as leading quieter lives. Nancy comes into contact with a great many relatives and friends in this novel, but I was particularly drawn to the scenes where she dealt with her siblings in various ways depending on their personalities and circumstances.
Nancy’s story is interspersed with the present-day one of American Lucy St. Clair, who is on secondment to Heywood Hill. Like Nancy, Lucy is a book curator, employed to help wealthy people kit out their private libraries with first editions and other rarities. Her storyline is a fun bit of escapism, as she experiences a taste of beefeaters-and-red-telephone-box London among fellow bibliophiles, VIP access to Chatsworth House, and a sweet budding romance.
Furthermore, Lucy is the distant relative of a man Nancy once loved, and has in her possession a copy of The Pursuit of Love with a hand-written dedication from Nancy to a mysterious ‘Iris’. While she’s in the UK, Lucy is hoping to find out who Iris is, or was. I felt that, given Lucy’s mission and the bookshop connection, ‘Iris’ and scenes from Heywood Hill might have featured more heavily in Nancy’s narrative, but I was nonetheless left in no doubt that both precipitated turning points in her life.
The Mayfair Bookshop is a fascinating introduction to the world of the Mitfords.