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Book Chats: The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club

As it starts to warm up and the sunlight lingers later each day, my genre reading shifts. No more dense fantasy novels; instead, I want books that have summery vibes. Seaside settings and joyful moments. The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club by Helen Simonson is one such book. Lori read it months ago and has been mentioning it consistently since then—and while I don't often pick up historical fiction unprompted, I do enjoy it—so we decided to have a virtual chat about it to compare notes.

Constance Haverhill finds herself out of a job now that the Great War is over and the position she fell into as an estate bookkeeper for an old family friend is being returned to a man. She gets her severance in the form of a summer spent as companion to the recovering Mrs. Fog at a seaside village. Unsure how to occupy herself, she stumbles into a friendship with the lively Poppy Wirall and her gang of motorcycle girls who worked as delivery riders during the war. In their attempts to keep riding and stay employed, hijinks ensue, races are won, and a plane destined for parts is salvaged. But the shadow of the Great War looms over them all as some try to forget and everyone attempts to move on. In this time of change and recovery, Constance has to decide what she wants to make of her life now that women are expected to go back to the way things were before.

Becca: What is it that drew you to this book when you first picked it up?

Lori: I think it had been compared to Downton Abbey, which I love and I am generally a fan of historical fiction. World War I and the period between the world wars has not been overdone as much at World War II fiction at this point, in my opinion, and I found the change in time period and setting at the seaside refreshing. Thanks for letting me talk you into trying it!

Becca: I really enjoyed it, and our tastes overlap quite a bit, so it wasn't a hard sell. The seaside setting was just what I needed to carry me over into the warmer months. I've just started Downton Abbey for the first time (currently on season 2), and obviously there's a lot of overlap in themes and setting. Did you find this setting and premise to be unique, or is this a topic you read about fairly often in the historical fiction sphere? And how did you feel about the multiple points of view? Were they beneficial to the story, or did they get in the way?

Lori: I have read several books this year so far that feature the suffrage movement and women's rights, and not on purpose but they just seem to follow after one another. The Gentleman's Gambit, A Suffragist's Guide to the Antarctic, recently The Stranger I Wed. So I wouldn't say I seek them out, but it's been interesting to keep reading about it. I like multiple POV if it serves the story, and I think it does for this book. It heightened the emotional impact and tension to have an interior view of Constance, Klaus, and Harris. What did you think?

Becca: I always enjoy seeing similar things or the same events through multiple points of view. Harris and Constance provide us with a dual-POV romance, while Klaus gives us insight into the life a naturalized British citizen from Germany during that time. And all three of them exist in different, if overlapping, social classes, which added depth. I really loved the emphasis that Simonson placed on the part women played in the war, and how they were then displaced by the men who came home and needed their jobs back. It was a difficult thing to navigate, since there have always been women who have had to support themselves and their families.

Lori: I know! I thought she did a great job highlighting that huge oversight when the party line is that all men must be employed at the expense of often more qualified women. Constance needs to work to support herself; she doesn't have anyone else or anything else to fall back on, and it was interesting how uncomfortable those conversations made the "upper class" people she was thrown amongst.

Becca: This book definitely gives nods of acknowledgement to several of the British Empire's former colonies. There's a certain Indian government official that I love as a character, not to mention the old friends that Mrs. Fog reunites with in their time at Hazelbourne-on-the-Sea.

Lori: Yes! I appreciated that (and I loved him too!). I wanted to visit Mrs. Fog's friends; their home made me think of a Rosamunde Pilcher novel. I think even though, overtly, this book is about women between the wars trying to find a way to forge their own destinies, there's also a current of confronting prejudice or intolerance that plays out in multiple situations and with varying results. 

Becca: Agreed. While a large portion of this novel was light and fun (e.g. - the motorcycle races, the flying lessons, and the sheer joy of both), Simonson did an excellent job with some very difficult topics.

If you need a good, atmospheric lead-in to summer, The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club will be up on our staff picks shelves for the foreseeable future. Let us know if you read it; as always, we'd love to continue our book chat with you!

Becca & Lori