Publisher: Ballantine Books
Published: July 23, 2023
Paperback: 448 pages
My Review: 🌟🌟 1/2
It is 1914, and as the war draws the young men of Britain away to fight, women must keep the nation running. Two of those women are Peggy and Maude, twin sisters who live on a narrow boat in Oxford and work in the bindery at the university press.
Ambitious, intelligent Peggy has been told for most of her life that her job is to bind the books, not read them—but as she folds and gathers pages, her mind wanders to the opposite side of Walton Street, where the female students of Oxford’s Somerville College have a whole library at their fingertips. Maude, meanwhile, wants nothing more than what she has: to spend her days folding the pages of books in the company of the other bindery girls. She is extraordinary but vulnerable, and Peggy feels compelled to watch over her.
Then refugees arrive from the war-torn cities of Belgium, sending ripples through the Oxford community and the sisters’ lives. Peggy begins to see the possibility of another future where she can educate herself and use her intellect, not just her hands. But as war and illness reshape her world, her love for a Belgian soldier—and the responsibility that comes with it—threaten to hold her back.
The Bookbinder is a story about knowledge—who creates it, who can access it, and what truths get lost in the process. Much as she did in the international bestseller The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams thoughtfully explores another rarely seen slice of history through women’s eyes.
I’m not usually a reader of historical fiction, but have found myself reading a couple in the genre this year. This one came highly recommended and since the author is Australian, I felt compelled to read it.
But I have to admit, I wasn’t enthralled. I listened to this book on Audible, and while it was lovely to step into that world through the accents, and imagine life on a longboat during that time, I just couldn’t get into the story as much as I wanted to. I mean, how many times do we need to hear how to fold and gather pages? I understand what was Peggy’s world, but it was ad nauseam after a while.
I would have loved to have learned more about Rosie and Lotte and Bastiaan, but it was very much a ‘poor me, I’ll never get anywhere as a “Town”’ storyline (vs Gwen’s character’s opportunities as a “Gown”). The story was set during WWI and it’s obvious Peggy lives in a bubble and this was her world, but she was so naive and selfish with everything else going on – war and the Spanish flu!
The story was supposed to be about growth and not giving up, but she was given opportunities because of the people she met and pushed by those around her. It was painful. No, it was infuriating.
At the end of the audio version, the author talks for thirty minutes about her research. I can see where she wanted to go but it lacked depth in the characters. It could have been great. But she missed the mark.
I really tried to like this book. I really wanted to. But this was not the book for me.
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