It's becoming something of a theme that almost every book I've written about recently is one that I should have read a while ago - but it's true of this one too. Somewhere between the dislocation of lockdown and suddenly feeling weird about reading something set in retail I really procrastinated on 'Business as Usual' until yesterday when I more or less read straight through it.
The first thing to say about it is it's really good. I can only imagine that there are other publishers who specialise in reprints of women's writing who are kicking themselves for not getting to this first - and if they're not they ought to be. It's a delightful book, funny, warm, quirky, and surprisingly relevant for something from the early 1930's.
It's an epistolary novel told through letters, telegraphs, memo's and a few other bits and pieces. The protagonist is a 27 year old woman, Hilary Fane, who has just got engaged to a rising young surgeon in Edinburgh. The engagement is to be for a year and she has decided to fill it by going to London and getting a job as she's just been made redundant from the library she's been working in.
Job hunting turns out to be harder than anticipated until eventually a very junior, and temporary, clerk's position turns up in Everyman's - a version of Selfridges. There's a bit I'd like to say about Hilary's personal relationships but they'd be spoilers so I'm going to focus instead on the retail side of the book which is particularly well done.
Maybe it isn't particularly surprising how recognisable the details of life in a large department store still are given that human nature doesn't change that much (and computerized systems don't always drive the efficiencies you might hope for), but one thing that really struck me is Hilary's graduate status. In one of my first tutorials as an undergraduate the tutor in charge (a PhD student who was also a manager in the local Dillon's) told us never to try and patronize book shop staff - they already had their degrees she said. So does Hilary, but it isn't much help to her when she's job hunting.
There is an expectation that people who work in bookshops (or sell wine) will be well educated - at least on the part of people who work in bookshops (and wine). To many people start working in them as students and stay after graduating. Increasingly that's also true of those working in supermarkets as better jobs fail to materialise. It's a particularly hard system on women. Initially shift work can fit well with other interests, later it works around childcare, and there's always the possibility of promotion. Unfortunately you soon hit a bottleneck - the way to get ahead is to move around the business which favours the young and commitment free.
Hilary starts out hoping to find a job that pays £4 a week, but ends up with one that pays £2 10 shillings instead. Her entire income is taken up by rent, transport, and eating which she briefly finds fun, and then a cause for some despair. But Hilary knows her situation is temporary. She has well to do, if not especially well off parents to return to and a solidly comfortable and secure middle class life waiting when she marries. It would be easy to make a joke out of her period of poverty, but the authors don't - instead making a point of discussing the bleaker aspects of a life spent working hard for never quite enough to get ahead on.
They're good on the unglamorous but sometimes surprisingly impressive behind the scenes systems that make a really big shop function, and on company culture. I got really emotional about how Hilary describes Christmas; "I've kept Christmas with the best but I've never provided it before. I hadn't an idea what December could be like for the people who did." If you've experienced this you know. If you haven't it is hard to describe as how exhilarating, exhausting, and hellish it can be.
There is a charming romance in here, and it's mostly a light and funny book, but the details and compassion for the working people it describes are what make it something so much more than a charming period piece for a lazy Sunday afternoons reading. I genuinely cannot recommend this highly enough.
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I read Business As Usual this summer and also loved it. In addition to agreeing with your comments, I would like to add fhat the delightful line drawings perfectly capture the characters and events in the book.ReplyDelete
I didn't even get round to mentioning the drawings, but they're charming. It's just a really lovely book. Handheld are really great at finding interesting books that do a bit more - like this one, not just a sweet and funny comedy with a romantic edge, but genuine social commentary too.Delete
This has been on my list of books I might buy one of these days but your review has pushed it to the top.ReplyDelete
It reminds me a little bit of Miss Pettigrew lives for a day - fun, and easy to read, but underneath the froth and the happy ending there's a real point. In this case it's issues that are still frighteningly relevant which makes it particularly worth a look. If you get the Handheld newsletter, or follow them on social media, they frequently have offers...Delete
Wonderful review! I loved everything about this book and particularly, like you, enjoyed all the details about Hilary's work. I love knowing how much characters make, what hours they work, etc. And I adore epistolary novels, so this was just perfect.ReplyDelete
It's really good. Right down to the way that Hilary grows to love her job as it becomes more interesting. It does a ton of stuff in a quiet way.Delete
I loved Business as Usual too, especially the daily details of working life, and the awareness of Hilary's graduate status. It takes her troubles seriously, while also acknowledging that she has safety nets that just aren't there for many of those around her. I love the way Hilary's letters give you such a clear sense of the people she's writing to, and the use of telegraphs and memos is so witty.ReplyDelete
The whole thing is a delight!Delete
I really like the sound of this. Enjoyed your review.ReplyDelete
Then you should love the book! I'm a little bit late to the party with it as you can see from the rest of the enthusiastic responses!Delete
I am looking for something different to read and I think I may have just found it.ReplyDelete
Thank you, I do love epistolary novels.
I really loved this and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.Delete
I broke my book-buying ban at the start of the lockdown and bought this and it was absolutely worth it, a perfect comfort read. I loved it. And I absolutely could relate, having worked various retail jobs, especially at Christmas.ReplyDelete
It's charming but with enough of an edge about the way it discusses genuine problems that it becomes more than the sum of it's parts.Delete