Penelope Fitzgerald's wonderful Booker-nominated novel. This, Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel, was her first to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is set in a small East Anglian coastal town, where Florence Green decides, against polite but ruthless local opposition, to open a bookshop. 'She had a kind heart, but that is not much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.' Hardborough becomes a battleground, as small towns so easily do. Florence has tried to change the way things have always been done, and as a result, she has to take on not only the people who have made themselves important, but natural and even supernatural forces too. This is a story for anyone who knows that life has treated them with less than justice.
Old news, bookstore closures? It wasn't old news in 1978, when Penelope Fitzgerald published The Bookshop, perhaps adding prescience to the poignancy already in glowing abundance in these bittersweet, but ravenously delectable pages about a courageous, recent widow's dream to do something (and to be somebody) different: Independent for the first time in her life: A bookseller. Brave woman.
Florence Green (a pity her last name is so descriptively apt concerning her business acumen), itching for adventure and a means of making her own way in the world for the first time since her husband's death, takes a huge, optimistic gamble, and opens her bookshop in a long-vacated, leaking, draughty and dilapidated, antiquated structure befitting its name - "The Old House" - in an English village with an ominous name of its own: Hardborough. Indeed it's hard starting up any business anywhere, but a bookshop in an establishment as rickety and sodden as the Old House? Can you imagine? Isn't dampness and draught anathema to pulp? Water-stained books are not fast sellers.
And isn't location everything too for a bookshop? Florence Green has chosen a site in an everybody-knows-everybody hamlet that has one unpaved road in, and just that same frequently flooded and muddied (when the high-tide rolls in) road out. Might be easy to open a bait-and-tackle shop at such a site, but a bookshop?
And did I mention that the Old House is haunted by what the locals term a "rapper"? An entity that, no, does not wear a baseball cap sideways nor work double turntables simultaneously, but whom makes a lot of racket nonetheless. And knocks over books and sticker displays. The ghostly nuisance of such a benign poltergeist!
Despite the odds stacked against Florence; and despite Violet Gamart and her uppity political power dead-set against the bookshop, for awhile, with the aid of an eleven year old girl, Christine Gipping, as well a part-time bookkeeper, and the most honorable auspices of the veritable heart and soul of Hardborough itself, Mr. Brundish, Florence Green is able to make a good go with her bookshop, and for a year, she's relatively, surprisingly, successful. Even her lending library is a smash.
But not everyone is so thrilled with her success. Surrounding business's are jealous. Violet Gamart, (the Ice-Queen of Hardborough) isn't happy, either, her fairy-tale visions of the Old House becoming an "Arts Centre" for the town thwarted by this naive entrepreneur, Florence Green.
Florence Green would've been wiser not to give Christine Gipping, her eleven-year-old, impulsive part-timer, so much authority in the lending library, turns out, especially on the occasion of Violet Gamart's very first visit to the store. Precocious Christine, strictly abiding by the checkout lending rules, "intervenes" rather rudely (but within her rights!) as Violet Gamart attempts to procure for herself a volume out of turn. There's a waiting list, Lady, abide by it! A swift ruler-thwack to Violet's knuckles and...The Old House Bookshop, unfortunately, inevitably is doomed. Sorry to not warn of spoilers, but the book (a novella really) lets you know soon that there won't be a happy ending.
Penelope Fitzgerald's style is concise and fast paced, but full like a hearty homecooked meal leaves you full. The book is small, though, diminuitive, a diamond: perfect in equilateral literary geometric dimensions that only enhance its shiniest story sparkle. The Bookshop, in 123 pages, sparkles like that perfect diamond, more rare jewel than slim, rarely read book nowadays...and then some.
When the widow Florence Green - who, in truth, has been existing, rather than living, for the last eight years in the coastal village of Hardborough, East Anglia - decides to open a bookshop in this isolated area, reactions are mixed. In order to succeed at this unusual venture Florence has to overcome a series of obstacles: human, inanimate and preternatural; but chiefly those placed in her path by the district authorities, from her bank manager and her solicitor, to the county society doyenne, Violet Gamart. In what is essentially a concise, but elegantly-detailed construction of Florence's experiences, as she organises the purchase, renovation, opening and daily running of her bookshop, the minutia of life in this damp and dying community also unfolds.
This book is probably best described as a sad little tale accentuating, with clever understatement and adroit particulars, the foibles of life in a diminished seaside village – and the endeavours of some of the petty inhabitants to increase, at the expense of others, their inconsequential significance. The genius in the text is the meticulous description of the desultory specifics of local life, thus providing a depth of analysis, intimated delicately between the lines, for the reader to ponder. There is so much more to this tale in what is left unsaid than in what is written. And what is written is just delightful: when Florence sets up in the 'Old House' - named for the fact that it is one of the oldest structures in this already ancient area - the shop is, of course, named "The Old House Bookshop" - how not!
This is my first Penelope Fitzgerald – and it won’t be my last. There is an economy of style and degree of skill, in her writing, to depict a mood, an atmosphere, an ambience, that is all the more striking with the brevity of the work. There is nothing uncommon in this small-town situation the author portrays: the fear of the unusual with an intense phobia surrounding any change, any disruption to the status quo. The author has, however, with exceptional ability, created precisely, and concisely, an absorbing tale in regards to such, which is also, on the whole, quite touching.
This is not that book. Really, it's a tiny, tightly-written tragedy, a story about how people can be really, truly awful to one another, with all the good people getting punished and bad people rewarded. It's very well-written and perfectly, plainly presented, and *damn*, does it hurt. I finished it just after midnight and went to bed whimpering.
And yet there are comical moments here too, at least I thought so. Florence's worrying about the possibility of 'local authors' wanting to come to her shop, for instance -
"... the books were called 'On Foot Across the Marshes' or 'Awheel Across East Anglia,' for what else can be done with flatlands but to cross them? ... She vividly imagined their disillusionment, wedged behind a table with books and a pen in front of them, while the hours emptied away and no one came ... 'The customers will come in and ask for your book soon - of course they will, they have heard of you, you are a local author. Of course they will want your signature, they will come across the marshes, afoot and awheel.' The thought of so much suffering and embarrassment was hard to bear ..."
As one of those 'local authors' myself, I found myself chuckling and smiling, remembering the empty stores, the embarrassment. Hell, I laughed out loud. Fitzgerald knows about books and authors and book stores. But most of all she knows people, and how indifferent and even cruel they can be, perhaps especially in small towns and villages where everyone knows everyone else's business.
This is a beautifully written little book, wise and sweet all at the same time. It ends almost abruptly, but any other ending would have been wrong. Very highly recommended.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
The book is wittily written and I enjoyed reading it. I did feel that the ending all came about rather suddenly, and unexpectedly different in tone from what had gone before - but then, this is the same way that it was experienced by Florence, so I suppose we are experiencing that along with her. But for me, it didn't really live up to the rave reviews - it was a bit too light.
The book's center is its main character: Florence Green, the owner of the titular shop. She's a woman starting over relatively late in life who knows her chances, is unshakably committed to her project, and seems to thrive on adversity itself. An outsider to most of the townspeople and a widow, she's tough-minded and a survivor, but also a loner. She reminded me not a little of Peggy Cort, the head librarian that served as the focal point of Elizabeth McCracken "The Giant's House." It seems slightly ridiculous to say that a book that describes her efforts to start up a bookshop in a rural English town is about her confrontation with evil, but I'm not sure that would be exactly inaccurate. Fitzgerald, unlike other writers who deal with this sort of material, has a remarkably sharp take on evil, and not just its most snarling, aggressive manifestations. Fitzgerald's novel is filled with characters that, although it would be difficult to call them bad in every sense, but might be called morally lax: too passive, too egocentric, and not careful enough with their own selves. In this novel's constrained setting, their sins accumulate and "The Bookshop" turns, slowly and inevitably, into a small tragedy.
This might be considered, in its own way, a bit of a relief. Since Amazon started eating up establishments like Florence Green's by the gross, it's hard not to get a little nostalgic about small bookstores, but I suspect that Florence herself wouldn't be having any of it. She's nothing if not practical and unsentimental about the business of books; Fitzgerald, who'd done bookshop work herself, makes an effort to present bookselling a trade like any other. The reader learns which books sell and which books don't, how returns work, and, ultimately, how hard it is to keep a bookshop going. Indeed, the question of literary quality is raised only once, and Florence isn't the one who resolves the issue. Now that we can imagine a future in which booksellers are about as common as farriers, "The Bookshop" might serve as a useful historical document from a time when a small city without a bookstore was something of an anomaly. For a novel that can seem pastoral and quaint, "The Bookshop" has real teeth, but I wouldn't be surprised if it also moved some readers to think of some much-missed bookshop in their own pasts. I, however, have to admit that I read it on my Kindle.
The book is full of interesting characters (besides the rapper) such as Christine, the 10-year old girl who becomes Florence's assistant in the store. Like all of the children in Hardborough, Christine is used to hard work and seems older than her years. Mrs. Gamart is the self-appointed matron of Hardborough along with her husband the General. While most of the townsfolk simply think Florence's shop will fail, Mrs. Gamart is openly against the idea. For she has decided that Hardborough requires an arts center, and the Old House is the perfect place for it. Never mind the fact that it has sat empty for years. There's really only a couple people who actually support Florence in her endeavor, one being an eccentric recluse whom she only meets in person once. This is a fun book with great descriptions of small town life in a coastal village and a cast of very colorful characters. I will definitely be seeking out more books by Penelope Fitzgerald.
There are some good characters and snapshots of life in Britain. Florence herself is resilient, forthright, independent, and confident. Christine, a young girl (11) who comes to help Florence in the bookshop: mature beyond her years, efficient, bright, energetic, but who fails the critical school exam that streams people into secondary school (some vague hint that she might have been failed as partial retribution against Florence) so that she has to go to trades school. Florence later hears that Christine has faded away and out into a spiral of life that is down and negates all the bright, eager promise she had shown. Mr.Brundish: an old recluse who is a recognized power in the town, but who rarely if ever ventures outside his door. He and Florence become friends in an odd tangential way, and the final pathos of the story is when Brundish challenges Mrs.Gamart because she is orchestrating legal maneuvers to oust Florence from her building, and to bankrupt her in the process. It is a challenge that Brundish will win, but he keels over and dies upon leaving the house, and the story is then put about that in fact he had sided with Mrs.Gamart. A final blow to Florence. The last line of the book: "As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop."
The book blurb quotes Balzac to the effect that the ordinariness of human lives can never be a measure of the effort it takes to keep them going. This is true of The Bookshop, which, in that sense, is very much like Carol Shields. I will look for more books by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Let me try to illustrate how good it is by describing all the ways that the recent movie adaptation was awful.
I think the movie was actually longer than the book—you can read the book in about two hours, and it flies. The movie is nine hours long, seemingly, and I only watched about 45 minutes of it.
Fitzgerald is entirely clear-eyed, sharp, warm, and very funny. The movie, on the other hand, is ponderous, mawkish, self-important, humorless, and dull. The movie protagonist rhapsodizes about the magical significance of books and stores full of them, which is absent from the novel. In the novel she’s trying to be a businesswoman, and is totally unsentimental about books (as people in the book business actually tend to be). She doesn’t even seem to be particularly well-read.
I gather from the preview that the big middle part of the movie which I skipped turned her into a moralizing crusader against censorship in opposition to the rural fuddy-duddies scandalized by Lolita. Penelope Fitzgerald, though, doesn’t moralize.
The movie also ruins an interesting relationship by hinting at a totally implausible romance which is absent from the book. And the entire narration (by a grown version of a child character in the book) is a creation of the movie, is execrable, and would make Penelope Fitzgerald vomit in horror if she were alive to hear it.
I skipped to the last few minutes of the movie to satisfy my morbid curiosity about what they would do to the ending and thereby stoke my burning hatred for everyone involved (except of course Bill Nighy, who has license from me to do whatever he wants at any time). I will give what little credit is due: They ruined the ending in a totally inexplicable, incomprehensible, and out-of-nowhere way, instead of ruining it in the way you expected.
Avoid the movie with extreme prejudice.
The book, on the other hand, is recommended.
First off, the writing is beautiful. Fitzgerald cultivates a small but clever cast of personalities, with a gentle gradation of character development. To quote the TLS from the back cover: "Fitzgerald's resources of odd people are impressively rich".
At 153 pages, this is definitely one of the shortest books I have read since I graduated from the Famous Five and Secret Seven. However, I'm not sure that added length would add anything to the novel, as we focus only on Florence's time in the village. In a larger work covering all of Florence's life, her time in the village would probably occupy this many pages, so in a sense it's not small at all, just precisely focussed.
There's not much of a plot but that is a pleasant change for me, given that I usually read very plot-driven novels (e.g. Clive Cussler). We pass ten years in Florence's company (almost exclusively), in a succession of episodes and moments which introduce us to some strange people with peculiar motivations. Some of them threaten to descend to farce (particularly the old man who keels over dead in the market square), but poor Florence remains fixed solidly in realism throughout.
One character who is exquisitely captured is young Christine. The ten-year-old bookshop assistant is proud and proper but smacks a customer over the hand with a ruler. She confides in Florence and listens to her, but runs off in a huff when her schooling takes an unfortunate twist. Like Marcus in About A Boy and Alan Bradley's spectacular efforts with Flavia, Christine is a beautiful child who springs off the page into the reader's heart.
The villagers are an odd mob and are strangely set against Florence - whether this is due to the interference of the village's most prominent member of society is not quite clear, which adds to the charm; the reader cannot be sure of the minor characters' motivations. I'm still confused by Milo North. The poltergeist embodies the village spirit, in that he is loudest and most disruptive when Florence is successful. I was apprehensive about the introduction of the poltergeist, but it was neatly done. Fitzgerald has a gentle touch with irony, and it lightens the sombre mood regularly.
I had some questions which were not answered (the circumstances of her being widowed, what her connection to the village is or why she moved there), and they are not answered precisely because the focus is only on her time in the village. However, the answers aren't important.
"She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation."
"She had been trusted, and that was not an everyday experience in Hardborough"
"Her disappointment, however, endeared her to the shopkeepers of Hardborough. They had all known better, and could have told her so."
"Gentleness is not kindness. His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of other until it found it could settle down to its own advantage"
"Lord Gosfield was touched, though he had said nothing all evening, and had in fact driven the hundred odd miles expressly to say nothing in the company of his old friend Bruno"
I would definitely be interested in reading more FitzGerald after this, and I hope someone decides to make a film out of this - I can just see Jennifer Ehle, Helen Blaxendale or even Helena Bonham-Carter bustling about a little bookshop with the grey East Anglian sea in the background...
Reviews from other bloggers: dovegreyreader, Savidge Reads, Novel Insights, Sasha and the Silverfish, The Mookse and the Gripes
One thing I absolutely have to mention, though, is the humour, which is so dry, so sneaky and so tongue-in-cheek that you might miss it: Fitzgerald’s voice tends to the matter-of-fact tone and her humour sometimes required a double-take. Definitely one of the standout features. Another is the ending, which, oh dear, is absolutely perfect, and I won’t spoil it for you. (If your copy has an introduction, read it last!)
I thought The bookshop was a marvellous, brilliant book. Probably one of the best I’ll read this year. It has only strengthened my resolve to read more by Fitzgerald.
I read it because it fits into my reading goal of reading all books about bookstores & booksellers. But although I gave it 4 stars, I'm not sure I'd recommend it. Sorry. I loved it but wanted more.
That said, there is loads to like about most of the choices and this brief study in disillusion and small-town rivalries is no exception. Fitzgerald teeters on the edge of tweeness but her writing is unsentimental enough and her characters believable enough to cope with it. My favourite moments came in the unexpected flashes of local landscape and custom – the marshman filing a horse's teeth, the uninhabited housing development slowly falling off the cliffs, the matter-of-fact Suffolk poltergeist inhabiting the bookshop.
I was left impressed with Fitzgerald's steely refusal to sugar-coat her narrative's decline and fall – even if, for me, it was hard not to wish she'd found a way to sublimate it all into something a bit more transcendent at the end. But Britain in 1978 was clearly about as untranscendent as you can get.
Fitzgerald's writing reminds me of William Maxwell's. Both writers use words economically, but precisely. Both seem to emphasize character over plot. Both are stunningly good.
There's a quote on the back cover of this book that I think sums it up nicely. (I don't usually quote cover text, but this seems appropriate.)
"Balzac, an expert on how nasty people can be to one another in small country places, once said that the ordinariness of human lives can never be a measure of the effort it takes to keep them going. Anyone who has found this to be true will admire Florence Green for her wit and her innocent courage, a courage that comes from simply choosing to survive."
I think this story will haunt me for a while.