The pettiness of an English seaside town. It is described by Florence Green, a middle-aged widow who buys a house for a bookshop, something the town has not had for over a century. Leading her enemies is Mrs. Gamart who wanted the house for an arts center.
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.
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.
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
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.
I would recommend this book to several women I know in their 20's to 40's, several men of the same age bracket, and to a teacher who runs an ESL school in an Asian country (the clarity of the writing as well as the detailed context make this book excellent for mid-level new English speakers.
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
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.
Last night, I was struggling with a non-fiction book, and just wanted some fiction which was easy to get into. I chose this one, largely because it was a short book, so I thought we would be straight into the plot. And we were. Before I reached the bottom of the first page, the main character was starting to form in my mind. By the end of the second page, the groundwork was laid for the plot. A masterful beginning.
I'm afraid I rather raced through the book, as I was eager to learn how the story progressed. Being set in 1959, there was a distinct class divide in the town, but with hints of the way this was beginning to change in British society. But at its base is a stonking good story, with some characters you are rooting for, some you are booing from the sidelines, and some you can't quite make out, with a good dollop of gentle humour. Recommended.
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.
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.
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.
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.