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The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop (1977)

by Penelope Fitzgerald

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Penelope Fitzgerald is rapidly becoming a new favourite author. In [The bookshop], she presents the story of a small English village and its response to the opening of a bookshop -- and especially to the lady who runs it. The focus lies not so much on the quirky villagers that tend to populate these kinds of books, but rather Fitzgerald’s no-nonsense understanding of human flaws as filtered through social negotiations around how to handle irrational pettiness and whether or not to indulge in it. Social commentary through refusing to overtly comment on social issues: a very memorable book.

One thing I absolutely have to mention, though, is the humour, which is so dry, so sneaky and so tongue-in-cheek that you might miss it: Fitzgerald’s voice tends to the matter-of-fact tone and her humour sometimes required a double-take. Definitely one of the standout features. Another is the ending, which, oh dear, is absolutely perfect, and I won’t spoil it for you. (If your copy has an introduction, read it last!)

I thought The bookshop was a marvellous, brilliant book. Probably one of the best I’ll read this year. It has only strengthened my resolve to read more by Fitzgerald. ( )
1 vote Petroglyph | Jul 12, 2017 |
This is a sad story. Florence Green opened a bookstore in the faith of her village and her a favour to do. Unfortunately this was not the case. From the first moment on, they were just putting stones in the way. She was exploited and departed. She only got support from Mr. Bundish, but in the end this did not help either. She had to admit defeat and leave.
I like how Fitzgerald can draw such a strong picture in a few words. ( )
  Ameise1 | Apr 25, 2017 |
Mrs. Green is the little engine that could, but can she defy the odds? There are many interesting characters and humorous episodes and interchanges. ( )
  bkinetic | Mar 23, 2017 |
Reading this in conjunction with other nominees for the 1978 Booker Prize, like Jane Gardam's God on the Rocks and Kingsley Amis's Jake's Thing, really does give you this impression of 70s England as a place of small towns, insular gossip, hostility to new ideas, and a preoccupation with quotidian concerns over any sense of the wider world. In a sense, fair enough – but one does slightly yearn for a little more ambition and pizzazz in the novelling world. By comparison, Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea, which I didn't entirely love when I read it years ago, seems like a worthy winner; it took those parochial English elements and made them into something archetypal, something mythic and strange and genuinely literary.

That said, there is loads to like about most of the choices and this brief study in disillusion and small-town rivalries is no exception. Fitzgerald teeters on the edge of tweeness but her writing is unsentimental enough and her characters believable enough to cope with it. My favourite moments came in the unexpected flashes of local landscape and custom – the marshman filing a horse's teeth, the uninhabited housing development slowly falling off the cliffs, the matter-of-fact Suffolk poltergeist inhabiting the bookshop.

I was left impressed with Fitzgerald's steely refusal to sugar-coat her narrative's decline and fall – even if, for me, it was hard not to wish she'd found a way to sublimate it all into something a bit more transcendent at the end. But Britain in 1978 was clearly about as untranscendent as you can get. ( )
1 vote Widsith | Feb 23, 2017 |
An odd little book. A quick,easy read. I would recommend it. ( )
  LauGal | Aug 16, 2016 |
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In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not.
"Now, Mrs Green, if you'd catch hold of the [horse's] tongue. I wouldn't ask everybody, but I know you don't frighten.' "How do you know?" she asked. "They're saying that you're about to open a bookshop. That shows you're ready to chance some unlikely things."
"Shall we just have a look at the transactions?" she asked, clicking her silver Eversharp, and using the tone which brought her employer to heel.
She opened one or two of [the books she's arranging in a new bookshop] - old Everyman editions in faded olive boards stamped with gold. There was the elaborate endpaper which she had puzzled over when she was a little girl. "A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life."
She kept two of the Everymans, which had never been very good sellers. One was Ruskin's "Unto this Last", the other was Bunyan's "Grace Abounding". Each had its old bookmark in it, "Everyman I will be thy guide, in thy most need go by thy side".
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0395869463, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:15 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The pettiness of an English seaside town. It is described by Florence Green, a middle-aged widow who buys a house for a bookshop, something the town has not had for over a century. Leading her enemies is Mrs. Gamart who wanted the house for an arts center.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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