January 27, 2010

THE BOOKSHOP by Penelope Fitzgerald

For a long time, Penelope Fitzgerald, to me, was only the writer whose books appeared next to those of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s in the shelves of bookstores or libraries. I never thought to seek her out or think anything more of her, until I was browsing a list of Booker Prize winning authors on which – spoiler alert – she appears. So, I figured it was about time to give her a real chance, and I took out the only available book of hers in my local library at the time – The Bookshop.

The Bookshop, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Offshore is her work that won the prize), is a little, seemingly simple book that leaves a big impact. Set in a small English town in the late 1950s, the novel wraps proof of the inherent cruelty of human nature in a deceptively light and often amusing veneer. Florence Green, a widowed resident of Hardborough for a decade, has decided that the time has come for her little town to have a bookshop, and that she is the one to bring it to them. Hardborough is not one for change, however, as Florence learns through her attempts to fix up an old house to contain the shop and introduce her community to the wonder of books. Even when the fledgling bookshop shows promising signs of life, its customers show interest only in books on the history of the British monarchy and military, not so much in works of literature like the newly-released Lolita, by that foreigner with the funny name. It is not the predictable literary interests of the town’s residents that mean trouble, however; Florence meets problematic opposition from other ends. The ‘elite’ of the town with, of course, some political pull and knowledge of obscure laws, rally against Florence for personal gain. From the time the bookshop is only an idea throughout its short lifetime, Mrs. Gamart, a society woman with her own designs for the old house, manipulates and schemes against Florence for her own ends. By the end, you are (or, I was) left screaming at the injustice of it all.

Throughout the book, Fitzgerald gently satirizes provincial life and the strict social striations of a town as small and enclosed as this. The many characters of the town, from the farmers and fishmongers to the eager children, selfish shop owners and old esteemed hermits, add their eccentricities to the unique, and often obstinate, identity of Hardborough. She excellently crafts all these characters, so that in reading them you become part of this tightly bound community and fully accept its strangeness. Even the absurdities, from the sneakily cruel behaviors of the townspeople to their unquestioned belief is the ghost (or ‘rapper’) of the old house, are quietly believable. It is a strange place, this Hardborough, that apparently has no use for a bookshop. And yet, Florence’s attempt at bringing them one remains hopeful even in spite the cruelty of her neighbors. For such a small book, The Bookshop offers some big insights into morality and human nature and provokes strong reactions. F. Scott is no longer the only Fitzgerald I’ll be searching out at bookstores.

(Cover via)

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