Wartime for the Shop Girls by Joanna Toye – being on the Home front in the Second World War has its unlikely challenges for Lily and the others

Wartime for the Shop Girls by Joanna Toye

There are many female led novels set during the Second World War, and this one deserves its place with the best of them. It works because although the setting may be familiar to those readers who enjoy these books, it explores the subtleties of life for those people who were perhaps not in the direct line of fire, not in areas of heavy bombing, but for whom the effects of Home Front destruction were still felt in everyday life. It cleverly reflects the real effects of shortages, of the absences of men serving elsewhere, but also those who continued to live in the community. Friendship links can define daily life, whether because the difficulties of those who are close can affect how a sensitive and yet impulsive character like Lily feels, or because there is the faint stirring of more than friendship in the future. Lily is the main character in this well written series of books, yet many others have their moments as they face separation, childbirth, and the pressures of different demands on their lives. This is a book of characters who almost step from the page into the reader’s imagination. This may be the second book in the series, but I think it can work as a standalone. I certainly enjoyed the dramas and excitements of those who work and are associated with Marlows Department store in this enjoyable book.  

The book begins in January 1942, as Lily and her mother Dora welcome eldest brother and son Reg home. He is on a brief leave before heading to places unknown to fight as yet unknown battles. Lodger and friend Jim is also present; like Lily he works at Marlows, and is becoming a vital part of the smooth running of that establishment as well as supporting Lily and Dora. Lily cannot help but compare Reg’s calm and considerate demeanour with her other brother Sid’s more lively and humorous personality. Sid is a much closer sibling and it is not long before she arranges to meet up with him, in a typically complex wartime arrangement of trains and brief encounters. She is surprised when she meets him and is concerned about a secret that she must keep. Meanwhile her friend Beryl is approaching her due date, but as with many others her new husband Les is not present, shipped “overseas” for his military posting. Gladys, a friend who has had a recent tragic past, has at last found a special person in Bill, but he is also under orders to join his ship soon. Seeing her friends becoming romantically involved is having an effect on Lily, but she is aware “that kind of ‘belonging’ thing didn’t feel right for her. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to belong to anyone but herself, not just yet anyway.” Lily sees those around her and sees the possibilities of women having their own career, mindful of how after the First World War women gained the vote and began striking out in politics and other areas. Lily is an ambitious young woman, and is not keen to be limited by marriage at any time in the foreseeable future.

Altogether this is a thoughtful and engaging book with flashes of humour, moving moments and a genuinely thoughtful appreciation of what happened to those who were on the Home Front in the Second World War apart from the drama of local bombing and similar challenges. Lily, her family and friends are lively, realistic and essentially relatable characters, and I recommend this book accordingly.

Wedding Bells for the Victory Girls by Joanna Toye – a glorious novel of immediate postwar life for a group of women

Wedding Bells for the Victory Girls by Joanna Toye

This enjoyable novel looks at a group of friends who are all connected to Marlows Department Store in a small Midlands town, and begins in the summer of 1945, when the War is won and safety seems assured. Life for Lily, her fiance Jim and her mother Dora should be straightforward – a wedding day approaches, and everyone seems to be willing the young couple on. In the five books that have preceded this one, all set on the Home Front of the Second World War, there have been many trials and tribulations for Lily and her friends, and this sixth and final book in the series is no exception. I believe that this book could be read as a standalone, and it would undoubtedly mean that a new reader would be looking for the previous episodes. I have enjoyed Toye’s writing because she gets to the heart of the problems quickly and invites the reader to sympathise with so many characters with their own identities which are well drawn and consistent. There are dramas, as with any group of people in a novel set in this difficult time, but resolutions come quickly for better or worse. Lily and her friends Beryl and Gladys have families and responsibilities, and these are sensitively dealt with, but there is also room for some humour, especially in the well written dialogue. This is an enjoyable book with well written characters, atmospheric settings and plenty of appropriate detail in a well researched world. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read this book. 

The book opens on the wedding day of Lily and Jim, a much awaited day for everyone. Sid, Lily’s favourite brother, is present and is pleased to remember the day years before when a very young Lily was dressed up to go to Marlows for her interview. Sid acknowledges there have been some tough times connected with the war, when real danger and loss have threatened, and when Lily has had difficult decisions to make. Opening the book with this wedding was a really good decision, as it allows all the main characters to be gathered together and described. Dora is happy to see her only daughter married at last, but knows that nothing will ever be the same again. Beryl is keen to check Lily’s appearance; she has worked hard to set up and increase her business by hiring and selling wedding dresses with associated clothing. Her history has also featured challenges and despite a growing number of weddings in the immediate post war period, her immediate future will be difficult. Gladys has her twins, but is still having problems with her demanding grandmother, and discovers that not everyone who has returned from fighting will be welcomed into a steady job. Lily herself is happy working in Marlows, especially with Jim on the next shop floor, but traditionally married women have had to leave their jobs. Those people who served in the armed forces are returning to their jobs, and Lily notices that at least one is more than competent at her role in the shop. Some figures from the past return to the area, while some are welcome, others bring bad memories and perhaps new troubles. 

This book was a pleasure to read and it was good to catch up with characters who have been introduced and described over several years. The research into the shop, homes and other settings is as always impeccable, and is all carefully blended into the story. A question and answer section included in this edition reveals some of the difficulties writing and researching in the last few years, and how this and the earlier books were written. I recommend this book and indeed this series to anyone who enjoys female led fiction set in wartime for its honesty and real feeling.  

A Store at War by Joanna Toye – Introducing Lily as she starts work at Marlow’s, the best department store in town

A Store at War: The First Book in a Gripping New Wartime Drama Series: Book  1: Amazon.co.uk: Toye, Joanna: 9780008298234: Books

A Store at War by Joanna Toye

Lily has left school without her School Certificate, but in June 1941 she is hopeful of  getting a job where she could not have imagined otherwise – Marlow’s department store. As the daughter of a widowed and remarkable mother, she needs to work, and this is a big opportunity to avoid working on the market or a similar role. Her two brothers Sid and Reg have joined up, though Sid is at home on sick leave, having injured his ankle. This is the first book in a series of wartime sagas which tell the story of Lily, her family and friends. There are the highs of discovering attractions, new opportunities and much more, but this is wartime, so there will be absences and loss, limitations and rationing to contend with as well. Joanna Toyce’s first original novel sets up situations for Lily and others to contend with, both as a family and individuals. The dialogue is lively and sounds realistic, and the characters come alive on the page.  Lily is a wonderful character, so well drawn in many ways, with doubts as well a genuine concern for others. Lighter in feel than many other wartime sagas, this is a book which promises much for the later books in the series. 

The book opens with Lily preparing to go to her interview. Painfully aware how much rides on this meeting, she tries to tame her hair and is desperate to appear a little older. Not that her mother will allow her too much leeway, demanding that she wash off the make up she has applied. Marlow’s is the most upmarket shop in the town, where even entering the shop to look around seems impossible to a girl like Lily. She is only fourteen when the book begins, and she is so nervous when she discovers that her interview is to be with Cedric Marlow himself, the owner of the shop. As his secretary Miss Garner, acknowledges, as all the usual people who would be employed in the shop have left for war service of one kind or another, only the old, the very young or otherwise exempt are applying for jobs. This is a time of rationing, when virtually all food had to be queued for, saved and stretched. Cedric himself notices the worn out nature of Lily’s shoes, knowing that the family could not afford to shop in the place where she will work. As the story progresses there are new people introduced, such as Gladys, with her difficult home life and tragic family history, and Beryl, who is sharp and difficult. Lily’s mother Dora is a strong woman, with sayings and resources for every event, who is desperately proud of her children and always worried for their well being. Not that Lily tells her everything, and with air raids, a complicated plan and more, Lily must work hard in every sense.

This is a well written book that handles difficult situations well. There is a lot of research here, into minor things like available food, clothing restrictions and the set up of a local department store, but the information is blended into the narrative well. All the characters have layers, from an optimistic girl in search of love to a sad story of family challenges. I really enjoyed this novel, having had the opportunity to read a later one in the series, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys female led fiction set during the Second World War.