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
From Library Journal
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
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