Five people with busy, difficult lives find an oasis of friendship in their local library when they join The Blackout Book Club. It’s a story about love, war, and the pleasure of discovering a good book.
When Avis’ librarian brother Anthony leaves town, he entrusts to her his position at The Cavendish Association Library. Not a big reader, nor a trained librarian like her sibling, her plan is simply to work as a placeholder until he can return.
So she is stunned and dismayed when Louise Cavendish, owner of the facility, decides to turn it into a nursery school for the children of the women working at a nearby factory. In desperation, Avis blurts out that she has already started a book club to encourage indoor activities during the blackout periods. Avis figures if the building is already being used to aid the war effort, there is no way the elderly owner will repurpose it. Ms. Cavendish demands to participate in the club, and shy loner Avis is left scrambling for members. Fortunately, she does have one friend, Ginny. An extrovert who loves romance novels, Ginny is the perfect person to recruit participants. Avis dusts off her baking skills and makes treats for the crowd Ginny is sure to bring.
Ginny brings Martina, a woman from work, who brings her two children. Louise originally scoffs at their low numbers, but it isn’t long before the crusty spinster finds herself thoroughly engaged in the conversations they have around the volumes they choose to peruse. Louise finds herself inviting her elderly housekeeper Delphine and her charming young gardener Freddy. A promotion by Avis at a town hall meeting soon increases attendance, and as the core group grows closer, the issue of the nursery school looms ever larger on the horizon. The community is in desperate need of one, and there really isn’t any other available property. Will they be able to keep the building for its original bibliophilic use or will the needs of war strip them of this haven?
This novel deals with death and violence in warfare, as well as unplanned/unwed pregnancy, adoption and the turmoil of guilt and judgment surrounding those issues. A verbally and emotionally abusive marriage and the difficulties of dealing with that in an era when women could not easily divorce is shown. The term “Japs” is used once to describe people from one of the Axis powers, which is probably (sadly) historically accurate and would not have been considered much of a racial slur at the time. Speaking of Italian immigrant Martina, Avis at one point states that she couldn’t begin to “spell her last name”, although she learns how by the next meeting. This little glitch seemed a touch racist but the group embracing and being supportive and helpful towards Martina and her two kids while much of the community is prejudiced against the little family is quite progressive for the period depicted.
The Blackout Book Club is what I call a nightstand table novel - it’s interesting enough that you will enjoy reading a couple of chapters a night but not so riveting that you’ll stay up turning the pages into the wee hours. The pacing is slow and steady, and the plot is a simple look at how folks on the Maine coast lived during the war years.
Freddy, a former pilot discharged due to the loss of one of his eyes, is delightful - funny, kind, well-read, and insightful. Martina and her two children are well-drawn - the two kids aren’t perfect little cherubs but give their mom plenty of trouble, and the sweet, shy Martina faces the bigotry against Italians in the community with gentle strength and patience. In fact, those traits are what Martina utilizes to face all of the challenges life throws at her. Louise can be acerbic, and I questioned some of her decisions, but the author does a nice job of using her backstory to make Louise both comprehensible and sympathetic. She was easily my favorite heroine due to her grit, heart for charity, and willingness to grow and learn.
Avis is one of our two primary heroines, but while I liked her overall, her tale has some flaws that occasionally made reading her story challenging. In fairness, it’s natural for that time period that she would be wrapped up in being a wife and her desire to become a mother. Her relationship with her husband Russell is far from a romantic one, however, and their marital struggles, while realistic, strike a discordant note in her portion of the narrative. I can’t quite put a finger on why this bothered me as much as it did, but I think it had something to do with the fact that I didn’t think they made a good couple. Russell simply isn’t the man Avis needs and her brother Anthony seems to have more emotional intimacy with Avis than her husband does.
Ginny is the biggest fly in the ointment narratively speaking. For the first part of the novel all she can think about is going back to the island she grew up on, a narrow strip of land off the coast of Maine that has been requisitioned for war use. She has no trouble swindling the folks around her for literal nickels and dimes that she can put in a jar and save up for the moment the conflict is over so she can make her dream a reality. We are given a backstory as to why this is necessary, but I found her obsession with her previous life irritating. Ginny is also immature and impetuous - some of her choices, such as the ones surrounding the car chase scene, would be explicable only in a thirteen or fourteen-year-old. The mistake she makes towards the end of the book is costly and could have been handled in a manner that wouldn’t have disrupted her friend’s life so much. Ginny’s only redeeming virtue is her friendly exuberance but that lent to my mental image of her as an overenthusiastic puppy, fun for the first few moments and then exasperating after an hour or so. The puppy can be trained and Ginny will eventually mature, but having her be the lynchpin to a story about the home front where she is the romantic lead just didn’t work for me.
This novel is published by Bethany House which raises expectations of a strong Christian theology in the narrative, but the author handles this portion of her story with an extremely light hand. Mentions of praying the rosary, church attendance, and vague beliefs about God/Providence are sprinkled throughout the tale, but the primary theme is the value of friendship and the joy a good book brings.
Enthusiasts of women’s fiction novels about the WWII era are the folks most likely to enjoy The Blackout Book Club. I would recommend it to those readers but don’t think it will appeal to a wider audience.
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