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The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

August 7, 2016 24 comments

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. (1978) French title: L’affaire Lolita.

fitzgerald_bookshopThe Bookshop was our Book Club choice for July, along with Rendezvous in Venice, so my billet is a bit late but I didn’t manage to write it before going on holiday. 

Although it was published in 1978, The Bookshop starts in 1959 and is set in Hardborough, a small seaside town in East Suffolk. Florence Green is a middle-aged widow who intends to open a bookshop. Hardborough is still a very rural town who needs the basics…

In 1959, when there was no fish and chips in Hardborough, no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights, the need of all these things was felt, but no one had considered, certainly had not thought of Mrs Green as considering, the opening of a bookshop.

Florence’s idea comes as a surprise to her fellow villagers. She decided to purchase the Old House, a building that has been empty for years and that nobody really wanted. It has a second building that she intends to use as a warehouse.

From the beginning, Florence is against a wall of people who’d rather she abandoned her project. Her opponents are quite vocal albeit polite in surface. After all, you’re in the kingdom of the legendary English sense of understatement. (The word in Hardborough for ‘mad’ was ‘not quite right’, just as ‘very ill’ was ‘moderate’.)

Some think her enterprise is inappropriate for a woman :

 ‘You live by yourself, don’t you? You’ve just moved into the Old House all by yourself? Haven’t you ever thought of marrying again?’

This reminded me of the director of a crèche I met when I was looking for a daycare solution for my daughter. Since the fare depends on your earnings, she had all the documents about our financial situation and she asked me “Given what your husband makes, why don’t you just stay at home?” Hello, flash news, working is not all about the money. And like me, Florence, who used to work before her marriage, liked having a job, colleagues and being out of her house. So she’s rightfully irritated by this suggestion.

Other inhabitants are blunter, like Milo who has a job at the BBC in London:

Milo looked at her more closely. ‘Are you sure you’re well advised to undertake the running of a business?’ he asked.

Mrs Violet Gamart, the Mrs Verdurin of Hardborough, invites Florence to a party with the sole purpose of convincing her to drop her project and let her buy the Old Place to create an art centre. In appearance, she’s in favour of a bookshop but not in the Old Place.

The only genuine support she gets is from the elusive Mr Brundish. He’s like royalty in Hardborough and his opinion matters especially since he doesn’t socialise with anyone. Mrs Gamart would love to have him in her circle of acquaintances but she never managed to get an invitation. Mr Brundish’s open support to Florence only stirs up Violet’s jealousy and her determination to stop this bookshop.

Quaint little Hardborough should be named a viper’s nest. Everybody knows everybody’s business and the village also behaves like a compact social body who will do whatever it takes to expurgate a foreign body that would try to settle. And Florence Green is seen as one of those foreign bodies.

Florence brushes away the warnings and proceeds with her business venture. She’s convinced that things will settle down. Green is the colour of this book: Florence is too green with village politics and with the running of a business. The passages where Florence tries to understand the ins and outs of a general ledger are hilarious. Florence is also a little lost with purchases for the shop. And Violet is green with envy because of Mr Brundish’s attention to Florence.

Will the bookshop and Florence find their place in Hardborough? How will the power games unfold?

I enjoyed Florence’s story and appreciated Penelope Fitzgerald skills at describing the little jibes and the atmosphere of the small close-knit village. She has her way with words like here:

She drank some of the champagne, and the smaller worries of the day seemed to stream upwards as tiny pinpricks through the golden mouthfuls and to break harmlessly and vanish.

Isn’t that wonderful?

However, I had trouble connecting with Florence. I found her a bit too nice and a bit spineless. Or perhaps she puts so much trust in human nature that it borders plain naïveté.

What I didn’t like at all was the poltergeist/rapper thing. (Poltergeists are called “rappers” in Hardborough ) We learn at the beginning that they say the Old House is haunted. I thought it would remain a rumour, something to discourage Florence from buying the place. But no. It’s mentioned throughout the book and I don’t see the point. Why was this device needed in the story at all? I’m not too fond of ghost stories and since I couldn’t understand the use of the ghost here, it rather put me off.

But this is a small detail that shouldn’t deter readers from trying The Bookshop. It’s only on me, not a flaw of the novella.

For another review of The Booshop, go here and read Jacqui’s excellent take on it.

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