Wartime at Woolworths by Elaine Everest – An addictive saga!

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This is the sort of book which is partly comfort reading, partly melodrama and essentially a family saga. It is about people who behave predictably in a particular setting, this time war time Kent. The idea was originally that three girls are brought together by their common employment at a branch of Woolworths, but by the time of this third book in the series the links between the original girls are so complicated by common friends and family that it is difficult to see the characters that the first book was based on. It is quite complex, as part of the action takes place out of the immediate vicinity of the shop, and a knowledge of major events of the time helps to make the narrative and some of the emotions demonstrated clearer.

The story opens with Betty who is running the Erith branch of Woolworths in conversation with Sarah. The action then leaps backwards to a few months before when these two women are dealing with the crisis, and minor drama of life on the home front, when Betty has been promoted to manage the store, but is dealing with a staff shortage brought on by the absence of men who are fighting in the forces. Also the original Woolworth girls are distracted by young children and family pressures, despite the efforts of Ruby who appears to be some sort of universal grandmother. Two of the three girls decide to go back to their places of origin to try and discover what remains of their families, in London and Birmingham respectively. Both searches result in drama and long lasting repercussions as wartime problems claim the full attention of the reader. Based on an actual tragedy in London, there are few happy outcomes here. The various generations of the women are complicated, and their trials and tribulations are interwoven. There are happy moments of survival and joy, as well desperation. All matters are quickly resolved and while melodrama is the order of the day, there are happy human elements of joy and relief throughout.

This book is really a sort of soap opera in novel form. Everest undoubtedly creates characters who have a variety of emotions, and the wartime setting gives a lot of scope for dramatic incident which she takes full advantage of, and not in the most obvious way. Some events are difficult to believe in objectively, but the whole is a pleasing and slightly addictive narrative. The interlinks of people are a little difficult to keep up with and various generations are mixed in confusing ways, but as this is the third book in a series many readers will have a greater knowledge than I have of the setting and people described. Many of the characters are more than happy to help in the most difficult of circumstances, and in many ways this is a positive book. I was happy to read this review copy of the book and found it surprisingly enjoyable. It seems to sit well in its genre of twentieth century saga featuring women in difficult circumstances, and it is generally a positive read.

I asked for a review copy of this novel as I too was a Woolworths girl: I had a Saturday job in a large branch clearing tables in the cafe. I learnt various things, such as how to eat left over cream cakes in record time, and how to deal with awkward customers. Much of my earnings subsidized my book habit! This was an addictive read, and I freely admit to tracking down a copy of the first in the series!

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20 thoughts on “Wartime at Woolworths by Elaine Everest – An addictive saga!

  1. Thank you so much for your thoughts and views on Wartime at Woolworths. I confess to holding my breath as I read your words as I thought you wouldn’t enjoy it. I was wrong and delighted to be so – I’m still a little breathless though x

  2. I will have to find this series! I really enjoyed one about several young women working at Lyons Corner House in Marble Arch by Lilian Harry. Of course, it is still true that you meet people who are very different from you at work and often do become lifelong friends (and sometimes the opposite).

    1. It is well worth finding this series, and I am looking forward to reading more like it. I have been fortunate enough to do lots of voluntary work and have met lots of interesting people….

  3. How lovely to find a book about something you knew later on. I love books set in libraries for the same reason, I have to admit. I wonder what it’ll be like reading the first book, knowing what happens later – are you gong to leave it a while to let it subside in your memories a bit?

    1. I’m not sure whether to leave it or dive back in! I think I will wait before reading the first one, or I could track the middle one down and read the series backwards…? At least it shows you can read them separately and still enjoy them.

  4. I’m glad you reviewed this, as the author’s name would have put me off entirely. But having been brought up in Sidcup, anything that refers to that part of Kent really ought to tug my heart-strings!
    Incidentally I am delighted to see you using the Angela Thirkell-ish expression “common friend” which as she points out so often appears as “mutual friend”. It was the one thing about Dickens, whom she adored, that she could criticise.

      1. Hallo, Elaine, I didn’t know I would get to talk to the author in person! I can see why it might seem an odd remark, especially given that I also commented on the link to the Erith area, which must look like an obsession with proper nouns beginning with E. For me, and perhaps others, reading a blog is as much about the blogger as about the blogged/bloggee; although I ought to say that I only read three. In a comparatively short space of earth-time one becomes part of a friendship group, speeded up by the fact that one probably signed up to the blog because its opinions and values seem consonant with one’s own. So the point of my remark was to say to Joules, whose judgment by definition I trust and who reads more widely than I do, that she had drawn my attention to a series of books that I might well otherwise have ignored, eg if seeing them in a publisher’s catalogue or a bookseller’s shelf. The image of the author’s name suggested to me a pseudonym for a romance-writer. While not wanting to denigrate their activities – indeed the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s annual conference this year looks fascinating – I might have passed over the actual work(s) as a result of such an irrational prejudice, or squint in the mind’s eye, just as one can be put off by the resonances of a particular title. “Nothing personal”, as they say – but one’s name is very personal indeed. Thank you for taking the trouble to comment; I’ll weigh my words more carefully in future.

      2. Hi Hilary,
        Thank you for your generous comment. Authors always pop up on the blogs where they are featured as its only polite to respond to the blog owner and interact with readers. I had to smile at your comment for indeed I am a romantic novelist. I’m a proud member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and have, in the past, served on their committee. Women’s Commercial Fiction is one of the biggest selling genre and covers many sub genre. We aren’t all ‘pink and fluffy’ as some inwardly thinking people seem to believe. In fact I’m part of a campaign to have ‘TV celebrity book groups’ accept more women’s fiction. If its good enough for us females to earn a decent living writing the genre we deserve to be in the book lists.
        Best wishes, Elaine x

      3. Thank you for replying so promptly, Elaine, and for being so understanding. I don’t think I realised that reviewed authors would necessarily see their relevant posts, which just goes to show …
        Oddly enough I was reading last weekend about the failure of successive panels for the Wodehouse award (for humour) to select a woman despite the number of potential candidates – some of whose publishers do not put them forward! It isn’t as if women’s humour is not possible for men to appreciate, though it is often more nuanced. My own favourite Angela Thirkell is “sparklingly” witty as befitted her era and upbringing – but she’s also trenchant, down-to-earth and really rather rude at times. Yet her (female) biographer referred to her as a “lady novelist”. There is an awful lot of unpicking to do as well as new tapestry to weave!

  5. I always want to read every book you review. I will look for this one. (And I have no problem with the author’s name!)

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