“Things A Bright Girl Can Do” by Sally Nicholls

I picked this up at the library on a whim, because sometimes when you have a mountain of ARCs waiting to be read and reviewed, all you want to do is cheat on them with other books. A couple of months ago I read The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt and, while I really enjoyed the elements of social history and politics within it, overall I found it a little bit too fixated on sex for my tastes. This book is set during a similar period (pre-WW1 and then during the War itself), but it’s a YA book, so I thought it might suit me better.

things a bright girl can do

Publication date: September 7th, 2017

And it did! I was obsessed with suffragettes when I was younger, and this has those in abundance, as you’d expect; it’s also full of socialists and sapphic girls, so it’s basically got three of my favourite types of early 20th century women. As I’d predicted, it had some overlap with the social history portrayed in The Children’s Book, particularly with the political background of May’s mother, though this was explored in a lot less depth (it’s a much shorter book).

Overall, I enjoyed this a lot, and it gave me a bunch of feelings, so here are a few of the things I liked about it.

First up, the cuteness. The source of most of this? Nell and May. May is the kind of precociously nerdy type that comes from having a very unconventional and politically opinionated mother. She’s got a Quaker background and pacifist beliefs, which I enjoyed reading about, as I don’t think it’s something I’ve seen in many books. She’s also into girls, and about as out and proud as you can get given the time period.

Nell’s quite a contrast — she’s from a much poorer background than May, and has had to work for everything she’s got. She’s extremely butch, which might be why I felt a connection with her, but she’s learning for the first time that she’s not the only girl who likes other girls. I felt she had one of the most satisfying storylines, because she developed hugely without ever losing what made her who she was.

But to my surprise, I also developed feelings about the straight couple in the book, Teddy and Evelyn. I know, it’s wild. They were a surprise OTP for me, because from their first appearances I wasn’t expecting to have any feelings about them whatsoever — which incidently is also how Evelyn felt. She grew up with Teddy, and he feels more like family than a future husband, but his commitment to sticking by her side even when he thinks she’s being a complete idiot makes her realise how much he cares. It’s only after she’s arrested for suffragette actions that she actually realises her own feelings.

That was the sort of partner one wanted. A man who would tell you to your face when he thought you were acting like a bloody fool, and then stand beside you when you went ahead and did it anyway.

Teddy is the feminist ally we all need, clearly.

But seriously. I ended up with a ton of feelings about these two, and while their story had its romantic moments, it also showed the genuine struggle they faced, especially after Teddy went to war.

My one complaint about the book was that the tone sometimes felt a lot younger than the characters themselves, who ranged from 15 to 19 and above — on the upper end of YA, particularly as the book went on. The tone did mature with the characters, I think; as they moved onto adult pursuits (work, university, marriage), the narrative style reflected that.

Thinking about it, though, part of the reason it seemed ‘young’ was because the period and the characters’ social status meant they sounded a bit like they’d just walked out of an Enid Blyton novel — jolly good, what. Since I associate those with a much younger audience, my gut instinct was to place it younger than it actually was, until I adjusted to the style.

Anyway, all in all this was a fun read about a period of recent history that I’m particularly interested in, featuring cute f/f relationships. What more could you ask for?

Rating: ★★★★☆

Things A Bright Girl Can Do on Amazon (UK)

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