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The Bookbinder by Pip Williams
Historical fiction

The Bookbinder

by Pip Williams

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Quick take

Refusing to be cowed by the expectations of her gender and class, a young woman hungry for knowledge finds her own way.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_BookAboutBooks

    Book about books

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_War

    War

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Siblings

    Siblings

Synopsis

It is 1914, and as the war draws the young men of Britain away to fight, women must keep the nation running. Two of those women are Peggy and Maude, twin sisters who live on a narrowboat in Oxford and work in the bindery at the university press.

Ambitious, intelligent Peggy has been told for most of her life that her job is to bind the books, not read them—but as she folds and gathers pages, her mind wanders to the opposite side of Walton Street, where the female students of Oxford’s Somerville College have a whole library at their fingertips. Maude, meanwhile, wants nothing more than what she has: to spend her days folding in the company of the other bindery girls. She is extraordinary but vulnerable, and Peggy feels compelled to watch over her.

Then refugees arrive from the war-torn cities of Belgium, sending ripples through the Oxford community and the sisters’ lives. Peggy begins to see the possibility of another future where she can educate herself and use her intellect, not just her hands. But as war and illness reshape her world, her love for a Belgian soldier—and the responsibility that comes with it—threaten to hold her back.

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Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of The Bookbinder.
The Bookbinder

Before

Scraps. That’s all I got. Fragments that made no sense without the words before or the words after.

We were folding The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and I’d scanned the first page of the editor’s preface a hundred times. The last line on the page rang in my mind, incomplete and teasing. I have only ventured to deviate where it seemed to me that

Ventured to deviate. My eye caught the phrase each time I folded a section.

Where it seemed to me that

That what? I thought. Then I’d start on another sheet.

First fold: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Second fold: Edited by WJ Craig. Third fold: ventured to bloody deviate.

My hand hovered as I read that last line and tried to guess at the rest.

WJ Craig changed Shakespeare, I thought. Where it seemed to him that …

I grew desperate to know.

I glanced around the bindery, along the folding bench piled with quires of sheets and folded sections. I looked at Maude.

She couldn’t care less about the words on the page. I could hear her humming a little tune, each fold marking time like the second hand of a clock. Folding was her favourite job, and she could fold better than anyone, but that didn’t stop mistakes. Folding tangents, Ma used to call them. Folds of her own design and purpose. From the corner of my eye, I’d sense a change in rhythm. It was easy enough to reach over, stay her hand. She understood. She wasn’t simple, despite what people thought. And if I missed the signs? Well, a section ruined. It could happen to any of us with the slip of a bonefolder. But we’d notice. We’d put the damaged section aside. My sister never did. And so I had to.

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Why I love it

I am enchanted with books about books, stories about the power of story, and tales that reveal the lost narratives of women in places we don’t expect. Pip Williams seems to understand these loves of mine. In her engaging new novel The Bookbinder, she introduces us to Peggy and her vulnerable twin sister Maude, who live on a narrowboat across from Port Meadow in Oxford. Peggy’s wise intellect and captivating prose carry us into the fascinating bookbinding world of The Press during a war that changes a country and its people.

For Peggy, there is a particular agony in touching the typed pages that she folds and sews while being forbidden to indulge in the fullness of the text. Damaged books taken from the bindery to fill their boat, The Calliope, form the only library Peggy may ever enter. Bound by circumstance and duty, a life of literature and education like the one she sees in the Somerville students across the plaza from The Press is meant for other women, but not for her. But when the war arrives in Oxford, men from The Press are sent away, unlikely friendships form, and life unravels as Peggy finally faces her hidden desires.

I was absolutely enthralled by the lush world of 1900s Oxford and the ancient art of bookbinding. With unforgettable characters and a rich landscape, The Bookbinder is an immersive read I didn’t put down until I let out a long sigh on the last page.

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Member ratings (1,571)

  • Anna S.

    Bellevue, WA

    Wow I loved loved LOVED this one! Not only was the story a beautiful one but Maude has a little piece of my heart. What amazing characters and a thoughtfully and intelligently written book! ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

  • Vanessa C.

    PISGAH FOREST, NC

    What a wonderful insight into the young working woman’s perspective on the Great War, classism, higher education, suffrage, life, loss, and love. I loved that the characters kept surprising me. 💕💕💕

  • Melissa M.

    Chesapeake, VA

    I can’t put my finger on it, but the last chapter took my breath away. My heart broke and healed so fast I was left reeling. This is a lovely story of growth and hope and sometimes that takes time. ❤️

  • Geraldine T.

    Melrose, MA

    Pip Williams is so talented.The main Character Peg grew so much. I was both happy and sad at the end and cried for her as well as all who served in The Great War I Loved this historical Fiction💕😊👍

  • Frida D.

    Newton, TX

    Peggy’s constant striving to learn is her strongest trait which ultimately pulls her towards the life that she dreams of having but has always been too afraid to pursue. Maude is her champion support.

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