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The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

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.

  1. August 7, 2016 at 4:05 am

    I chanced across this last month on a bookshop outing with a Twitter/blogging friend who was in town. He raved about it and I remembered Jacqui’s review so I brought it home. I’m looking forward to it (one of these days).

    Like

    • August 7, 2016 at 4:23 am

      I’m in you time zone, for a change.
      It’s a good book, I’m looking forward to reading your review.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. August 7, 2016 at 8:55 am

    It’s great to read your take on this – and thanks for the link back to my post, much appreciated. I love your insights on seeing green as the colour of this book, that’s excellent! I think the publishers missed a trick by not going with that shade on the cover art. (Fourth Estate reissued a whole bunch of Fitzgerald’s books over here a couple of years ago, each one featuring a different coloured ‘wave’ on the front with the same colour on the spine. The Bookshop is orangey-yellow.)

    I couldn’t quite see the point of the rapper element of the storyline either. I wondered if it was part of the local culture in Suffolk at the time. The social politics in the town are excellent though. Fitzgerald is very good at portraying the social dynamics within these communities. Will you go on to read another of hers at some point?

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    • August 7, 2016 at 1:22 pm

      I wonder why they picked orangey-yellow for this one. I don’t see the link with the story or the place.
      The rapper. When it was first mentioned I thought it was a reference to the local tales and a way to make Florence give up on her project. But after that I didn’t see the point of the rapper making noises and being a casual part of the shop life.

      I’d like to read another one. “When” is the question.

      Like

      • August 7, 2016 at 3:07 pm

        I’ve no idea! Green would have been a good fit for The Bookshop – and blue (instead of red) for Offshore, a story set among the barge dwellers of the River Thames. I think I underestimated Offshore in my review as it’s a novel that has grown in my mind as the months have gone by. The Beginning of Spring is very interesting too, more oblique than some of her early novels but very intriguing as a consequence. It’s hard to find the time for everything though…

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        • August 8, 2016 at 3:16 am

          Apparently Offshore is another one to try. It tells a lot about the quality of a novel when you still think about it several months after reading it.
          This is rather rare, after all.

          Like

  3. August 7, 2016 at 9:53 am

    Great review. I read The Bookshop a while ago and can’t recall anything about the rapper so obviously it had no effect on me at all! I enjoyed Offshore by Lively more than this one, though if I recall I think Jacqui might have felt the opposite. She does a fantastic job of creating the oppressive sense of a small, threatened village.

    Like

    • August 7, 2016 at 1:11 pm

      I haven’t read Lively but I’ve hear good things about her books. It’s on the ever growing virtual TBR.

      Like

  4. August 7, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    One of the many traits I like about Penelope Fitzgerald is that she wrote short novels. I read most of them including ‘The Bookshop;’ which I thought was really good.

    Like

    • August 8, 2016 at 3:15 am

      She manages to pack a lot of things in few pages. I didn’t know her other ones are short as well.
      It takes a lot of talent to write short and good books.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. August 7, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    Great review as always Emma.

    I have heard good things about this book from several sources. It sounds appealing to me for several reasons, one being I like books about thongs like, books, bookstores, etc.

    Though I like ghost stories, I agree that such a plot device sounds a little out of place in this book.

    Like

    • August 8, 2016 at 3:14 am

      I’m also attracted to books about bookstores, libraires, book lovers, etc.
      It certainly warmed us to the book.

      Like

  6. August 7, 2016 at 10:17 pm

    That French title is actually pretty good.

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    • August 8, 2016 at 3:12 am

      I’m not sure it’s really representative of the whole book but it gives the crux of the matter: Florence is scandalous in many aspects. She won’t take advice, she’s a woman who starts a business, she doesn’t care about the local royalty and she does things her own way.

      Like

  7. August 8, 2016 at 1:19 am

    Years since I read this but I can’t remember the rapper thing either. I really enjoyed Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald and a book I think was called The Golden Child.

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    • August 8, 2016 at 3:10 am

      Good to know I’m the only one who noticed too much the rapper thing. It’s not the book, it’s really me.
      Offshore seems to gather good opinions. It sounds like a good choice for a next Fitzgerald.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. August 8, 2016 at 1:56 am

    Fitzgerald has been hit and miss for me. I like this one the most out of the ones I’ve read by this author.

    Like

    • August 8, 2016 at 3:09 am

      Did you read Offshore too?

      Like

  9. August 8, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Nice billet Emma.

    Interesting to read your comments about the elements that didn’t quite land with you. Naïveté and passivity are certainly common characteristics of the Fitzgeraldian protagonist. Or, what on the surface appears to be naïveté and passivity, but is often deep-seated stubbornness, or confusion, or something else. The Beginning of Spring features an infuriating, but somehow very attractive lead who is even worse in this regard than Florence. Sometimes Fitzgerald seems to be exploring what it is, what pressure or what state of mind, that will jolt her characters out of their mistakes, routines and obsessions.

    Similarly I think a lot of her books are interested in “what else is out there” – without perhaps being so explicit (or clumsy, depending on your point of view) about it as is the case here with the rapper. She doesn’t shy away from querying the unknowable, I suppose as befits someone with some heavy-hitters, religion-wise, in her family background. Can’t answer the question of what purpose the rapper serves here (I’d need to reread it to even try) but as a theme it’s a common one that appears, or is hinted at, in the other books as well. It takes different forms: science, superstition, coincidence, the weight and trace of history. I think she’s interested in what influences the often seemingly crazy decisions people select, and is open to the idea that other elements, not just personality, are involved.

    I read her short stories earlier in the year, and they were if anything possibly better than her novels (or all but the best of them anyway). There’s a deceptive simplicity to how she writes that is very appealing.

    Like

    • August 10, 2016 at 1:08 pm

      I agree with you, Florence is stubborn. She seems weak but in the end she does what she wants. And sometimes it surprises people: they gave their advice, they thought she agreed with them because she didn’t go against them and then discover that she threw the advice to the wind. Her biggest flaw is to trust people too much with issues regarding her business.

      Thanks for your insight on the rapper element in the book compared to her other books. I wouldn’t mind the exploration of, let’s say impalpable elements in the making of lives and decisions. We are influenced by lots of things even when we think we made a perfectly rational decision about something.
      Good to know her short stories are up to her novels. I enjoyed her style. It’s concise and under an apparent simplicity, she has her way with words and a real turn of phrase.

      Like

  10. August 9, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    I have this but haven’t read it yet. I agree that quote is wonderful.

    Interesting on the rapper (a term I have heard before, but even by then it was something I think of an archaism, though perhaps as you suggest not locally). I think this is semi-biographical so it may have been there simply because Fitzgerald had a similar experience. After all, we may not believe in ghosts but that doesn’t mean Fitzgerald didn’t or at least didn’t think them enough part of ordinary experience as not to be extraordinary when included here.

    Perhaps as Ian suggests the rapper is just an intrusion of the unknowable. Amid all these petty human concerns, something so strange and small and yet so cosmic in its implications. Or perhaps it’s just because many people know someone who reports a ghostly experience and in earlier periods belief in ghosts was more widespread (though I think today it’s still more common than many admit to).

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    • August 10, 2016 at 1:17 pm

      Fitzgerald suggests that “rapper” is used locally. I didn’t know if it was archaic or patois.
      You may be right. Perhaps the rapper element has no other use than enforcing the local atmosphere. It must be something of the local folklore and having one in the story anchors it in the place. Or emphatizes the fact that Florence is still a stranger even if she’s lived there for ten years.
      I also think that Ian in onto something with his explanation.
      Thanks to you two for expanding my views on that part.
      I think you’ll like it when you read it.

      Like

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