20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Fourth Estate, historical fiction, literary fiction, Penelope Fitzgerald, Publisher, Setting

‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 156 pages; 2006.

A good book is the precious life-blood of a masterspirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond
life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

A book about a bookshop seems hard to resist, right?

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop — first published in 1978 — has languished in my TBR for years, but I was only encouraged to read it after I watched the film adaptation last week (it’s streaming on SBS on Demand for anyone in Australia who fancies checking it out). Unfortunately, the film was a bit on the dull side (despite great performances from Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy), so I wanted to find out whether the book was better.

And it was.

While the film is faithful to the novel in terms of dialogue, characters and plot, it somehow fails to capture the subtle humour and the little digs at busybodies and those who wish to keep a good woman down, as it were.

And it also neglects to even mention the supernatural element of the storyline in which the lead character, Florence Green, is pestered by a poltergeist (or “rapper” as the locals call it)^^. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that might distract from the main storyline, which is a bittersweet tale about a widow who opens a bookshop against the wishes of the community “elite” who would rather an arts centre was established in the town.

A comedy of manners

Set in East Anglia, in 1959, the book is essentially a comedy of manners. It’s about petty-minded villagers who rail against Florence’s plan to open a bookshop in the small town of Hardborough on the coast — although it’s never made entirely clear why they think it is so objectionable.

Florence is kind-hearted but she’s also determined to do her own thing. (And maybe that’s why the locals are so against a bookshop being set up — women, after all, should be home makers and looking after children, but Florence is widowed and child free and she has a dream she wants to fulfil.)

She buys the Old House — “built five hundred years ago out of earth, straw, sticks and oak beams” — which has been vacant for years and is rumoured to be haunted by a poltergeist.

The noise upstairs stopped for a moment and then broke out again, this time downstairs and apparently just outside the window, which shook violently. It seemed to be on the point of bursting inwards. Their teacups shook and spun in the saucers. There was a wild rattling as though handful after handful of gravel or shingle was being thrown by an idiot against the glass.

Florence isn’t put off by this. She ignores the noise and the unexpected occurrences and gets on with the business of opening her shop, which also includes a lending library. She hires a local school girl, the forthright 10-year-old Christine, who helps out after class even though she doesn’t like books and isn’t particularly studious. Her working class parents, it seems, need the money.

The relationship between the older woman and her young charge is one of the sweeter elements of the book. Florence tolerates Christine’s rudeness and her sharp manner and tries to help her study for her 11-plus exam which will determine whether she goes to a grammar school or a technical school.

Other relationships develop over the course of the book. A strange older man by the name of Mr Brundish becomes a loyal customer and helps Florence decide whether she should stock the controversial Lolita to sell to the inhabitants of Hardborough. “They won’t understand it,” he tells her, “but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy.” She orders 250 copies.

By contrast, the charming (read slightly sleazy) Milo North, who commutes to London where he works at the BBC, is often on her case. When they meet at a grand party for the first time he asks her whether she is “well advised to undertake the running of a business” and claims that he will never visit her shop. He’s on the side of Mrs Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough”, who wants the Old House to be used as an arts centre for chamber music, lectures and art displays even though the building had been on the market for six months and no one but Florence had expressed an interest in buying it.

A successful business

Despite the local animosity and the challenges that confront Florence, including from her own solicitor and the opening of a rival store in a nearby town, the business is a relative success, and the story, while not exactly light-hearted, has a vein of gentle comedy running throughout it.

‘I don’t know why I bought these,’ Florence reflected after one of these visits. ‘Why did I take them? No one used force. No one advised me.’ She was looking at 200 Chinese book-markers, handpainted on silk. The stork for longevity, the plum-blossom for happiness. Her weakness for beauty had betrayed her. It was inconceivable that anyone else in Hardborough should want them. But Christine was consoling: the visitors would buy them – come the summer, they didn’t know what to spend their money on.

Sadly, there are greater unseen forces at work which put Florence’s livelihood at risk and the novel, for all it’s comic moments, nuanced observations and evocative descriptions of the Suffolk landscape, ends on a terribly sad note.

I enjoyed its commentary on class and ambition, courage and optimism, and think it’s probably the kind of story that benefits from a close second reading. The introduction to my edition, by novelist David Nicholls, is worth reading (but only after you have finished the book), as is the preface by Hermione Lee, who has written a biography about the author.

The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978. The winner that year was Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea.

^^ Update 20 August: Apparently the supernatural element wasn’t ignored, I just did not notice it when I watched the film.

This is my 17th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback so long ago that I can’t remember the date, but I also have it on Kindle, which is how I read it for the purposes of this review.

32 thoughts on “‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald”

  1. I’m really glad I caught this review. A friend gave me a copy only about a year ago, after I mentioned having seen the film. I feel sure from your review that I do not wish to miss the actual book in this case. Thank you!

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    1. Did you like the film? The book, in my opinion, is much better. But I shouldn’t be surprised. I always find film adaptations pretty disappointing with the exception of ‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Toibin, which was almost better than the book! I also really loved the film adaption of Peter Carey’s ‘Oscar & Lucinda’.

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  2. Great review–it will be interesting to see how she fares against the cultural ‘forces’ in the village; also the supernatural thread. This is one I’ve been meaning to get to as well for ages actually since one of my goodreads groups read it. I didn’t know there was a film, though.

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    1. I actually think the supernatural element is a metaphor for not being intimidated by forces beyond your control. Florence is not frightened of the town folk trying to prevent her from opening her shop, and she’s not frightened of the poltergeist either.

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  3. I picked up a copy of this from the library last week wondering, just as you did whether the book was more enjoyable than the film. I love Nighy but disliked this film so much we abandoned it after 30 minutes.
    Glad to know I’ll likely enjoy the book more

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    1. I think you will like the book, Karen. It’s a slow, subtle read, but there’s a lot going on in it. I’ve thought about it quite a bit since finishing it.

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  4. I loved this book when I read it a few years ago. I’ve managed to avoid the film even though I’d normally watch anything with Bill Nighy in! I did find it funny that she ordered 250 copies of Lolita,.no little bookshop would order so many.

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    1. The film is poor… and reliable old Bill cannot save it. And yes, fancy ordering 250 copies of the one book! Though maybe in 1959 there were far fewer novels being published so readers had less choice. Interestingly, most of the book titles named in this novel are all non-fiction titles so not sure there was a huge local appetite for novels 🤔

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  5. That’s funny. I saw the same movie, and there was definitely a ghost in the bookshop, even though they didn’t make that much of it. There is one discussion about it and some noises and odd incidents.

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        1. Ah, I wondered if prior knowledge of the ghost made it more obvious in the film. Admittedly I watched this on a Friday night after a trying week at work and perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention. The film, as a whole, was too slow for me… and the washed out colours (almost like sepia) didn’t help. Glad to hear you liked it, though. The reviews online are very mixed…some love it, some hate it 🤷🏻‍♀️

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve been through a phase of wanting to read anything that’s about a bookshop (84 Charing Cross Rd was the catalyst); of not wanting to read even one yet-another-book-about-a-bookshop; and now (I think) I’m back to normal, judging the book on its merit, bookshop or otherwise.
    I read this one, my records tell me, pre-blog in 2003, and I have fond memories of it. That would have been when I was building my collection of Booker winners. Remember when you did a meme about how many of those we had read?
    I’ve just read my too-short review in Reading Journal #6 where I mostly commented on the class issues. It was interesting to me that the arts, represented by the local society bitch, are pegged as elitist, whereas reading, represented by the bookshop, is not. I can’t remember now, but am I right that the growth of paperbacks brought reading to Everyman in about that era?

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    1. Funnily enough, I cannot stand books about books because I invariably find that the books that are name checked I haven’t read because they’re all so Northern Hemisphere centric… but stories about bookshops are a bit different, I guess, because I can identify with them from both sides, as a customer/reader and a bookseller (I worked part time in Melbourne bookstores between 1988-1994).
      I don’t quite understand the snobbery around Florence’s bookshop… the locals do look down on it and I wonder if it’s because it will educate everyone and threaten their privileged positions.
      I think mass market paperbacks arrived in the mid-1930s but I suspect by the late 1950s they were hugely popular. Having said that, all the customers in Florence’s shop aren’t looking for fiction, they’re looking for how-tos and war memoirs etc.

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  7. I’m so glad you liked the book, Kim – I love Fitzgerald, and I love the dark humour and underlying sadness of this novel. Her writing style is so unusual and precise too.

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    1. I had previously read Offshore and loved it. It was the humour and the observations about class that really won me over in that book, and those characteristics are present in this one too. I might have to try the Blue Flower next; that seems to have a lot of fans.

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  8. So… I saw the movie first and then read this book. I think the book was good but I kind of liked the movie better. Even so, I then read her “The Blue Flower” which I liked a whole lot, even when it was slightly confusing. I just got a copy of “Offshore” and I hope to read it soon.

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  9. I wonder why locals wouldn’t want a bookshop. Why is a bookshop and an arts centre either/or, you’d think they’d be complementary. I agree, 250 Lolitas!
    Interesting that paperbacks date from the 1930s – earlier ‘paperbacks’ had wrap around paper covers. I think first of all those Penguins with almost no artwork; and my 1950s Simon Templars have very plain covers; but on the other hand SF were relatively modern (paintings of spaceships). I don’t have my father’s post-WWII out of storage, but yes they would have been hugely popular – think The Dam Busters and The Great Escape.

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    1. I think we probably underestimate the level of Great British snobbery re: bookshops and art centres in the 1950s. I suspect it’s because bookshops were looked down on as commercial enterprises designed to attract the “everyman”, whereas art/chamber music/lectures were for the higher classes.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Hilaire. Yes, I loved Offshore when I read it quite awhile back. It was so evocative of a particular time and place, and I loved the humour running through it. I need to explore more by her now I think. I was amazed to find out that she didn’t start writing books until she was 60, so there’s hope for me yet. LOL.

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