‘They’re saying that you’re about to open a bookshop. That shows you’re ready to chance some unlikely things.’
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald is set in 1960 (published 1978), in retrospect quite a prosperous time for bookselling in comparison to today. Thus far Fitzgerald’s shorter stories (Offshore) have delighted me more than her longer (The Beginning of Spring) and The Bookshop was one I have had my eye on for a few months. While only 156 pages, it took me longer than expected to read. I had to stop over and over to underline segments where Fitzgerald depicted subjects in ways I had always thought of them, but never vocalised.
“In 1959 Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, risks everything to open a bookshop – the only bookshop – in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers. By daring to enlarge her neighbors’ lives, she crosses Mrs. Gamart, the local arts doyenne. Florence’s warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.” Synopsis from GoodReads.
Fitzgerald has a magnificent talent of depicting the humdrum level of everyday life in ways that have never felt more poignant or interesting. The fictional Hardborough felt so completely real, its residence those you know you could meet in any similar small community.
All Florence Green wanted was open a bookshop, and all the village wanted was get their own way. It would not be a great spoiler to reveal that Florence does not keep her bookshop. It is the events of the year that make you shift uncomfortably in your seat, make you want to reach in and give the characters a good shake. Yet, you know you would handle Florence’s challenges in the same manner. The loss of the shop felt inevitable, and I was far more interested in the series of events that would lead to it’s demise.
‘For more than eight years of half a lifetime she had lived at Hardborough on the very small amount of money her late husband had left her and had recently come to wonder whether she hadn’t a duty to make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right.’
Florence has few allegiances and each of her detractors appear resistant to the introduction of a bookshop not due to a dislike of books, but a feeling of change of which they have no control or influence. They all have their own ideas on where and how it should be run, which Florence handles with grace. She flies against adversity, making as little fuss as possible. I got the impression that if she had shouted her rights louder, she would have failed all the sooner.
‘Her courage, after all, was only a determination to survive.’
The Bookshop is a delightful novella, Fitzgerald captures each character with perfection, from the stoic Florence to the serious 10 year old, Christine. Even though a mere slice of Hardborough life is experienced you will feel as if you have learnt as much about village life as any epic could teach you.