The Picture House Girls By Rosie Archer: Enthralling blend of rich period detail, romance and drama - book review -
When you have spent most of your life dreaming about the movies, getting a job as an usherette at the local picture house seems like the perfect job.
But it’s 1942, Hitler’s Luftwaffe is raining bombs over England’s south coast and 18-year-old Connie Baxter is learning that life and romance don’t always work out like they do in the films.
Welcome back to Gosport, the Hampshire town with a long and distinguished naval and maritime history which has become familiar to an army of readers thanks to the wonderful novels of Rosie Archer, one of its proudest inhabitants.
After two series of compelling novels – the Bomb Girls and the Bluebird Girls – featuring some of the courageous women who lived, loved and worked under dangerous conditions during the Second World War, Archer is back to delight her readers with a brand new nostalgia-filled visit to the town where she was born.
This warm and drama-filled saga opens in Hampshire in 1942 as the war is bringing dark days and deadly danger for many of the residents. Connie Baxter has just moved in with her Aunt Gertie Mullins in Gosport after the death of her mother when a bomb hit their Portsmouth home.
Also in residence is Gertie’s chirpy lodger, Ace Gallagher, whose dream was shattered when his club, Four Aces, was demolished in a bombing raid. But Ace has fingers in a lot of (illegal) pies, not least his black market goods, and he is already contemplating rebuilding his club with the ill-gotten gains.
Gertie has worked for many years as a cleaner at the Criterion Picture House in the town and she helps Connie to get a job there as an usherette. And it’s an ideal place for Connie because she adores the movies with their glamorous, romantic stars like Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
The only fly in the ointment is the Criterion’s creepy, libidinous manager, Arthur Mangle, with his roving eye and wandering hands ‘like an octopus.’ But soon Connie is firm friends with platinum-blonde ice cream seller and head usherette Queenie, who tells her in no uncertain terms how to warn him off.
One evening, Connie shows a handsome young stranger to his seat in the cinema. Charming Tommo Smith is a ‘taxi-dancer.’ For a fee, he steers ladies of a certain age around the dance floor… and sometimes more besides which pays for his smart clothes.
Queenie says he’s a chancer, although his gorgeous blue eyes tell Connie something different. When Tommo suddenly disappears, Connie accepts that Queenie may be right… he was just too good to be true.
As the war rages on and Connie struggles with the harsh realities of life and the turbulence of romance, she comes to realise that working in a picture house is very far removed from the action on the silver screen.
The Picture House Girls is a sparkling opener to what promises to be another winning series with its enthralling blend of rich period detail, romance, drama, female friendships and the busy lives of the picture house women who pull together through good times and bad.
Connie, Gertie, Queenie and a cast of fascinating characters lie at the heart of a story shaped by the author’s trademark warmth and wisdom, and the emotions and experiences that have shaped her own life.
As always in her entertaining books, Archer brings to vivid life the hardships and privations of the tough war years, but also the humour, camaraderie and resilience that was a hallmark of the famous British wartime spirit.
Connie’s rollercoaster coming-of-age dramas are filled with mistakes, misunderstandings and hard learning curves, but with hope and love shining through, this is just the start of a journey which readers will be eager to follow every step of the way!
(Quercus, paperback, £6.99)