August 2023

The Bookbinder

By Pip Williams
Review by
Pip Williams’ commitment to optimism and courage is unmistakable, making The Bookbinder immensely heartwarming despite its weighty content.
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Pip Williams strikes again after her bestselling debut, The Dictionary of Lost Words, with a touching follow-up about twin sisters in their early 20s, navigating life as bookbinders in Oxford, England, in the early 1900s. The Bookbinder is a rich account of class relations during a tumultuous era in history that also displays deep love and appreciation for literature and its wardens. 

Peggy and Maude Jones fold books at Clarendon Press. As she binds the pages, Peggy sneaks illicit glances at the words, but this is pitiful consolation for an avid reader who dreams of studying English literature at Somerville College, one of Oxford’s women’s colleges, which is directly across the street. But Peggy and Maude, who live together in a docked boat, are not wealthy enough to pay for tutors or forgo their incomes for schooling.

Peggy feels responsible for Maude, who primarily communicates by repeating other people’s words. As Peggy describes, “Maude filtered conversation like a prism filters light. . . . My sister had a simplicity that unnerved people, an honesty that made them uncomfortable. It suited most to think that her words were nothing more than sounds bouncing off the walls of an empty room. It suited them to think she was feeble-minded.” (In the novel’s acknowledgments, Williams mentions autism and echolalia, the term for Maude’s repetitive form of speech.)

When the Great War hits Belgium, refugees arrive in Oxford, and the corners of the town’s social hierarchy begin to fold in on themselves. Peggy starts volunteering at the local military hospital, where she meets both Bastiaan, a wounded Belgian officer, and Grace, a spunky and empathetic Somerville student who serves as Peggy’s volunteer partner. Joined by the Jones sisters’ neighbors, colleagues, librarians and friends, Bastiaan and Grace help to form a makeshift family for Peggy and become her uplifting, memorable cheerleaders.

Williams imbues Peggy with admirable authenticity, and her struggles are achingly real. Deciding how much to risk—how hard to push herself out of her comfort zone—is a constant battle, but it is the path toward growth. Williams’ commitment to optimism and courage is unmistakable, making The Bookbinder immensely heartwarming despite its weighty content. She proves yet again that while luck can only take you so far, determination will pave the rest of the way.

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The Bookbinder

The Bookbinder

By Pip Williams
ISBN 9780593600443

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