Set mostly in England and, later in the story, in Italy, 'Bad Girls, Good Women' begins during a New Year's Eve party at the end of 1959, when a dramatic fire rampages through an old country house, which has quite devastating consequences - not just for the main protagonist of the story, Julia, but for many of those close to her. The story then moves back in time a few years, when a sixteen-year-old Julia and her friend, Mattie, run away to London, when Mattie can no longer bear her drunken father's sexual advances. After sleeping in an alleyway in Soho when their money runs out, Julia and Mattie meet and are befriended by Felix, a young, gay art student and his ailing alcoholic mother, Jessie. Julia and Mattie move in to Jessie's and Felix's rather cramped flat, and it is here that they all rub along together enjoying a hectic life, during which time Mattie dreams of becoming an actress, and the beautiful Julia learns from Felix how to dress stylishly, before falling in love with, and having her heart broken by, the very attractive American aviator, Josh.
Julia then meets the quiet and reliable (Sir) Alexander Bliss, whose family seat is Ladyhill, a beautiful, old mansion with mullioned windows, oak panelled walls and a long gallery. When Alexander proposes marriage, Julia, who has become very fond of Alexander, accepts his proposal and, deciding to put her love for Josh behind her, she tries hard to become the loving wife that Alexander deserves. However, when in the early hours of New Year's Day 1960, Ladyhill is severely damaged by a fire, caused by Julia's insistence on real candles for their Christmas tree, and one of her old friends dies in the flames, Julia finds it impossible to put the tragic event behind her. Whilst Alexander throws himself into the restoration of Ladyhill and Julia gives birth to their daughter, Lily, she struggles to settle down to life as lady of the manor, and when a letter arrives from her old lover, Josh, she begins to wonder whether she can face the rest of her life as Alexander's wife. But will Julia risk everything she has and her daughter's happiness to be with Josh - even though he has made it clear that he is not the settling-down type? Mattie meanwhile, in her attempts to become an actress, works as a stagehand and then a stripper, as she strives to attain her dream - but when stardom finally comes within her grasp, is it really all that Mattie thought it would be? And when Mattie does something that Julia feels is a betrayal, is Julia able to look past this and continue their close and loving friendship? (No spoilers - we learn most of this early in the story and this novel has almost 800 pages, so there is a huge amount more to discover).
Moving over three decades, this engaging story is the tale of Julia's and Mattie's lives, of their families, their friends, their loves, hopes, disappointments and dreams. Rosie Thomas creates characters you find yourself caring about and she sets her scenes well; her descriptions of the characters' surroundings, of the interior design shop, 'Garlic and Sapphires', which Julia opens in London, and the enchanting, secret walled garden that she restores when in Italy, were very enjoyable to read. My sister gave me this novel for Christmas and, although I was not planning on reading it immediately, a nasty virus had me flat out on the sofa for a few days and this book was the ideal companion for me while I recovered. This is not a great literary novel - and not meant to be one - not all of the situations portrayed are wholly convincing, some of the language is maybe a little cliched, and you most probably won't be up until the early hours frantically turning pages, but it is a warm, engaging and involving read and ideal for those times when you want something enjoyable and undemanding - so it's a good choice for holidays, downtimes, bedtimes, and especially for recuperating on the sofa!