Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a comic story follows a kindhearted English widow's struggle to open a bookshop in a seaside town against the polite but uncompromising opposition of the town's arbiters of culture. Original.
Since 1977, Penelope Fitzgerald has been quietly coming out with small, perfect devastations of human hope and inhuman (i.e., all-too-human) behavior. And now we have the opportunity to read "The Bookshop," her tragicomedy of provincial manners first published in 1978 in the U.K., but never available in the U.S. The Bookshop unfolds in a tiny Sussex seaside town, which by 1959 is virtually cut off from the outside English world. Postwar peace and plenty having passed it by, Hardborough is defined chiefly by what it doesn't have. It does have, however, plenty of observant inhabitants, most of whom are keen to see Florence Green's new bookshop fail. But rising damp will not stop Florence, nor will the resident, malevolent poltergeist (or "rapper," in the local patois). Nor will she be thwarted by Violet Gamart, who has designs on Florence's building for her own arts series and will go to any lengths to get it. One of Florence's few allies (who is, unfortunately, a hermit) warns her: "She wants an Arts Centre. How can the arts have a centre? But she thinks they have, and she wishes to dislodge you."
Once the Old House Bookshop is up and running, Florence is subjected to the hilarious perils of running a subscription library, training a 10-year-old assistant, and obtaining the right merchandise for her customers. Men favor works "by former SAS men, who had been parachuted into Europe and greatly influenced the course of the war; they also placed orders for books by Allied commanders who poured scorn on the SAS men, and questioned their credentials." Women fight over a biography of Queen Mary. "This was in spite of the fact that most of them seemed to possess inner knowledge of the court--more, indeed, than the biographer." But it is only when the slippery Milo North suggests Florence sell the Olympia Press edition of "Lolita" that Florence comes under legal and political fire.
Fitzgerald's heroine divides people into "exterminators and exterminatees," a vision she clearly shares with her creator--but the author balances disillusion with grace, wit, and weirdness, favoring the open ending over the moral absolute. Penelope Fitzgerald's internecine if gentle world view even extends to literature--books are living, jostling things. Florence finds that paperbacks, crowding "the shelves in well-disciplined ranks," vie with Everyman editions, which "in their shabby dignity, seemed to confront them with a look of reproach." One senses that classic hardcovers would welcome The Bookshop, despite its status as a paperback original. --Kerry Fried
Florence Green, a widow, has lived for ten years in a small village in Suffolk, England. With a modest inheritance, she plans to open the first and only bookstore in the area. Florence purchases a damp, haunted property that has stood vacant for many years but encounters unexpected resistance from one of the local gentry, Mrs. Gamart, who has a sudden yen to establish an arts center in the same building. Florence goes ahead with her plan in spite of Mrs. Gamart and meets with some small success. However, Mrs. Gamart surreptitiously places obstacles in Florence's way, going so far as to have a nephew in Parliament write and pass legislation that eventually evicts Florence from her shop and her home. This work by veteran writer Fitzgerald (The Blue Flower, LJ 3/1/97), originally published in Great Britain, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978. Both witty and sad, it boasts whimsical characters who are masterfully portrayed. Highly recommended.
-?Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education, Providence
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
On the heels of The Blue Flower (1997), here's a slighter, equally charming, half as deep little novel--about snobbery and meanness in the provinces--that the immensely gifted Fitzgerald published in England in 1978. It's 1959, and the ``small, wispy and wiry'' Florence Green, a widow and middle-aged, wants to open a bookshop in the little, bleak, remote, sea-swept East Anglian town of Hardborough. And so she borrows money to buy her stock and, as a place to house both it and herself, the High Street building known as Old House, over half a millennium old and faultless except for being damp and haunted. But as Mr. Raven, the marshman, says, Florence ``don't frighten,'' which is why he has her hold onto a horse's tongue while he files its teeth. What Florence hasn't counted on, though, is the studied malevolence of Hardborough's social illuminary and civic leader, Mrs. Gamart, who now says she wanted Old House for an ``arts centre.'' And things, indeed, start going wrong for Florence--not from the real ghost, who seems frightening but harmless, but from inexplicable changes in statute, policy, and law. When Florence is tipped off by a slippery ex-BBC employee that she ought to stock Lolita, she questions only whether it's a ``good book''--and so she asks the town's one true aristocrat, the dour Edmund Brundish, veteran of WW I. He says it's good (though he dies soon after), but Florence's troubles still grow only worse, both before and after Nabokov sells out. Readers will learn the sorry end, while enjoying on the way a wondrous cast of townsfolk, including Florence's assistant, the sweetly tough Christine Gipping, who, at 11, as Florence says, ``has the ability to classify, and that can't be taught,'' though she does make an error (true human style) that costs dear. Pitch-perfect in every tone, note, and detail: unflinching, humane, and wonderful. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
"A marvelously piercing fiction" -- Review
A beautiful book, a perfect little gem. -- BBC Kaleidoscope
A solid and satisfying bit of human life...every action in it matters, however small. The style is understated but exact, and the crystalline and amused observation of small country town people, speech, ways, animals and landscapes gives continuous pleasure, especially the 1950s bookshop interior, with the boy who comes in every day after school to read another chapter of I Flew with the Fuhrer. -- The Spectator, Emma Fisher
Penelope Fitzgerald is the finest British writer alive. -- Richard Eder, Newsday
Penelope Fitzgerald's novel The Bookshop is a little gem, a vintage narrative--first published in 1978--of parochial English life in the late 1950s, a classic whose force as a piece of physical and moral map making has not merely lasted but has actually improved with the passage of years. -- The New York Times Book Review,
This is not just a gallery of quirky still lives; these people appear in vignettes, wryly, even comically animated....On any reckoning, a marvelously piercing fiction. -- Times Literary Supplement, Valentine Cunningham