The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald

One of the things that lead me to wanting to have a little break from the blogging recently was that I had got myself into the habit of reading to write about the books on here. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing apart from the fact I was beginning to rush read in my enthusiasm and putting pressure on my reading and suddenly I just didn’t want to read. A lovely parcel then arrived in the post, from another very kind reader, containing ‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald and I felt fate was sending me a sign and it turns out that I think it was because it was not only a book I wanted to read there and then because of the title, which I think would appeal to any book lover, it was also a book that made me read slower (that doesn’t mean it was boring) and sometimes you need good books that do that too.

‘The Bookshop’ centres around Florence Green and her desire to do something with her life after having been widowed. For several nights, as the book opens in the year of 1959, Florence has slept yet has felt she has been wide awake and the reason is she thinks she needs to open a bookshop in the seaside town of Hardborough. Something which she decides to do by converting the town’s ‘Old House’ which has been left derelict for several years so taking out a loan that’s what she does. Like all good smaller communities word spreads and as it does people start to ask her whether maybe she has chosen the right venue and before she knows it she is being subtly threatened by the towns self important and self elected honorary leader Violet Gamart who seems to have always wanted to make The Old House an arts centre but has never quite gotten around to it. Florence carries on with determination little knowing she will need courage as many an obstacle will be thrown in her way.

If I am honest I should have been slightly disappointed by this book. I was sort of demanding, in my head, a book about a book shop in a small town and all the crazy characters that pass through its doors. You do get that to a degree for example when Florence orders in copies of ‘Lolita’ causing a surge of gossip and huge crowds outside the shop causing traffic issues on the street. Some of it though seems slightly culled for the bigger picture which is that of a tale of a town wanting change and then being rather unsure it’s what the wanted at all and also of someone having the courage to do something different in the face of adversity. In the end for having all these strands I liked it all the better once I got my head around it.

Its not a book you can rush read (though its 156 pages so you could manage it in an evening or an afternoon) because its pace is meandering, rather like when you find your self in a book shelf slowly and enjoyably perusing the shelves you find yourself doing the same with Penelope’s prose and paragraphs. You get the feeling every word matters and every paragraph has been plotted, though there isn’t a massive plot in this novel, and placed where it is for a reason. Sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t quite yet you still enjoy reading it regardless. An example would be the rather bizarre and unexplained haunting by the poltergeist in The Old House which the townsfolk are always talking about and when we endure it with Florence actually proved quite chilling, perfect for this time of year, which I loved and yet I am sure Fitzgerald had thrown in for a reason I didn’t pick up on my first read.

It’s a book I want to return to eventually though as it has all the right ingredients, it makes you laugh, its quite touching and frustrating as you get to know the town and its people and it actually made me incredibly upset towards the end – not by the ending itself but by something that happens about three quarters of the way through and which of course I am not going to tell you anymore about.  It’s not a book that will shout out its accomplishments and wry storytelling so you jump out of your seat with its brilliance; instead it quietly and unassumingly tells you a story that will stay with you a good while after the final page is turned. 9/10

Savidge Reads suggests perfect prose partners;

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald – I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s Man Booker winning novel when I read it last year (I actually didn’t realise it was that long ago so gave myself a shock, how does time whizz by so?) and said I wanted to read more Penelope Fitzgerald, now I am even more eager too.

Any of the works of Muriel Spark – I don’t want to compare specific books because there aren’t any I can think of and nor do I think Spark and Fitzgerald are of quite the same ilk, its just there is something that makes me think if you like Spark you would enjoy Fitzgerald too.

I don’t know if others will agree about my Spark comparison, is that helpful at all or true? Actually it’s less a comparison more a ‘maybe if you liked this, then you might like those’. Anyway regardless Fitzgerald is an author who I will endeavour to read even more of, and if you haven’t tried her do, I am just not sure where I should go next. There were lots of blurbs to her other books in the back of this one and they all sounded good. I thought I had some more of her books in the TBR but they are Penelope Lively, who I haven’t read any always confuse the two, is Lively any cop? Any advice?

This book was kindly sent to me by a reader of Savidge Reads just a week and a bit ago – a big thank you.


Filed under Books About Books, Flamingo Books, Harper Collins, Penelope Fitzgerald, Review

19 responses to “The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald

  1. I’ve been trying to get hold of this book for years! Each time I go into a secondhand bookshop I look for it (because actually ordering it is of course unthinkable and against the spirit of the whole enterprise. I’m convinced that the store I find it in will be somehow significant – that I’ll marry the owner or run away with the bookshop cat or something…) Anyway, I’m so glad that your review makes it sound all that I expect and hope for. And I think you’re right – Muriel Spark would appeal to Penelope Lively fans, even though Spark is a little daffier and more playful.

    • I used to look for this in bookshops new and old back when I was buying books and could never get a copy and then I was sent it buy a lovely reader. I bet theres lots of copies online.

  2. I’m glad you were able to find such a great book to take your time with. It sounds like a good read, but maybe a bit too demanding for what I’m looking for at the moment. I hope your next read is just as good.

  3. I adore this book – it got me hooked on Fitzgerald.

  4. George Brodie

    Everyman’s Library has a two volume set of the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald. One of the six novels is The Bookshop. Each of the six is a joy in its own way.

  5. not read any Fitzgerald ,seen she been on booker list few times I really should try and read some more female writer ,all the best stu

  6. novelinsights

    How curious, as I was reading this book review I thought you weren’t going to like it and then you did. Sounds like it might have been frustrating in parts but was ultimately excellent and moving?

  7. I love this book so much, and I couldn’t quite place why – think it must be the style, or the narrative voice or something – it’s usually wonderful style that I’ve loved if I can’t quite work out why I’ve loved a book!

    Your comparison with Muriel Spark is interesting – as you may have noticed, I’m having a Muriel Spark ‘moment’ right now, and although I wouldn’t have compared the two myself, now that you’ve mentioned it I realise that I get similar feelings from reading them. Both very insightful, very careful with their prose, and intelligent without being off-putting.

    • Yes I know exactly what you mean when you say you love a book and you arent sure why, and I think I feel quite the same with this book but couldnt work out how to say it.

      I wouldnt pair Spark and Fitzgerald there is just something that makes me think of them and its quite possibly all the things you point out.

  8. I read this book when I was in high school, I think, and I remember being utterly depressed by it in the end. It’s not that it was in-your-face tragic, just tragic in that way of quiet human failures. Trying to be vague: I wonder if your ‘upset’ moment is what Violet says – and doesn’t say – to Florence after her meeting with the old man. That was my main upsetting moment though the teenage shop assistant’s story arc provided some additional sadness.

    • My upsetting moment was to do with the old man but not quite that bit, though that was part of it too.

      it is a real life tragic novel as in its not instantly tragic but not far off it.

  9. Lyn

    I enjoy both Penelopes but I prefer Lively. I love the way she blends the past & the present in her books. Time is often a theme. I’d recommend According to Mark, the story of a biographer who falls in love with his subject’s granddaughter or Cleopatra’s Sister, about 2 people who are brought together during a revolution in a North African country.

  10. Pingback: Review: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald | Alex In Leeds

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