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Book Review: The London Bookshop Affair by Louise Fein

- January 21, 2024

With the popularity of the movie “Oppenheimer,” stories and memories of the impact of nuclear weapons are once again topics of conversation. In this book, readers will be taken to a time in 1962 when the world stood on the brink of annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We begin in February 1942 with Jeannie, a young British girl who has fallen in love with an American airman based in the UK. Before he leaves on a mission, he asks her to marry him, promising her a good life in New York when he returns. But he doesn’t return, and we find out later the impact that had on Jeannie, who she really was, and who she became.

The main plot concerns Celia, age 19, living at home with a dour mother and alcoholic father. She works at a bookshop and dreams of becoming a woman with a career, her own place to live, and the ability to have an impact on the world. The world, which in October 1962, was filled with fear and uncertainty as Kennedy and Khrushchev faced each other with nuclear war at stake.

Celia has worked for three years in a bookshop, but the owners have retired and a new woman, an American, has purchased the shop. She not only keeps Celia on but gives her more responsibility and a raise, which will help her save for her future escape from home. And she gets to meet several interesting people who visit her new boss, including the charming Septimus Nelson. He works at the American Embassy, and Celia is impressed with both his professional status and his charm. If he is doing his part to work for peace, Celia decides she too must take a stand and joins groups of antiwar protestors.

But there are several other stories that emerge in this fascinating book. Except for Celia and her parents, all of the characters are based on real individuals or composites of several people. The historical research by the author, the reason London played such a big role during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fate of Jeannie and how she ties into the story – all come together in a dramatic ending.

As a child, I remember the drills in class – to duck under my desk in case of a nuclear attack. It seems so silly now, and one wonders if it seemed silly to our teachers and adults who must have known what the actual outcome would have been if one hit our school. Ignorance was bliss. Not anymore.

A side note to this review: I will be going to Cuba for a visit with a group from the University of Mary Washington in a few weeks.  It is my second visit there. In 2016, I was able to visit the Bay of Pigs Museum (Playa Giron). It was fascinating to see not the American version, not the Russian version, but their version of the incident that took place where I stood.

Penny A Parrish is a long-time book reviewer and artist. Learn more about her by visiting her page at Brush Strokes Gallery, which is in downtown Fredericksburg.

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