On The Bookshop — the “silent battleground in a minimal state of truce” — a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald

We’re beginning 2011 bookishly. Of course. [Although I do admit to reading the last ten or so pages of this novel after midnight of the 1st — setting it down to play some poker, eat some fruit salad. Hur. So, yes, technically, this is my first read of the year. Nothing like beginning the year as a cheat, hehe.] Aherm. A book about books. Or a bookshop. Or the obstacles and hazards one can face when embarking on the rather scandalous endeavor such as opening a bookshop. Yes, that.

For a bookshop proprietor to write this to an institution trying to shut her down, “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a commodity” — is this not the height of furious awesomeness?

Florence Green wants to open a bookshop — the only bookshop — in the seaside town of Hardborough, where she has lived for years. A widow, our Florence “had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation. For more than eight years of half a lifetime she had loved at Hardborough on the very small amount of money her last husband had left here and recently came to wonder whether she hadn’t a duty to make it clear t herself, and possibly to others, that she existed, in her own right.”

Hardborough possesses them archetypal small-town charms and flaws. Case in point: Florence soon discovers a, hm, a resistance to her plans, and the town conspires against her and the success of her shop. Oh, it’s all underhanded, rather polite and sly. As soon as she launches her plan, she gets the notice of the towns top figures — not necessarily officials, mind you, but them token small-town presences. It may seem like a trivial thing, but, for example, Florence gets invited to a party held by Mrs. Gamart, a patroness and the local arts doyenne — and Mrs. Gamart, before, has barely given the impression that she was even aware of Florence.

See, Florence Green only became significant because she became contentious. Mrs. Gamart wants the old house in which Florence builds her bookshop fore herself: she’s decided she wants to build an Arts Center there [or, Arts Centre, as the book insists — the same way it rather quaintly says bookshop when I haven’t seen a bookshop here in these country: bookstores, yes].

Mrs. Gamart: “As a source of energy in a place of Hardborough which needed so little, an energy, too, which was often expended in complaints, she was bound to create a widening circle of after-effects which went far beyond the original impulse. Whenever she realized this she was placed, both for herself and for the sake of others, because she always acted in the way she felt to be right. She did not know that morality is seldom a safe guide for human conduct.” Mrs. Gamart does  everything she can to stunt the growth of Florence’s little business venture. And she’s got some considerable power — perhaps one of the most annoying archetypes in these small-town stories: the self-righteous harpy, self-assigned pillar of the community. Garkh.

The power of influence, these widdle social microcosms. The town, so sly, so eww, does what it can to stop the shop’s success — a poltergeist even makes an appearance, hell. And the resistance? Augh, the way cows resist. That doesn’t make sense. Something about herds, I guess? Aherm. So.

I was so bored. It was all too subtle for me, haha. Probably not the best book to read when one’s awaiting the coming of the new year — the book is good, I was aware of that. But its [what I would have said if I liked it:] quiet power is its, well, the strongest selling point. But no. I was too vapid, awaiting the stroke of midnight.

But those last couple of pages — the ones I read when the smoke finally cleared and the leftovers were thrown into the refrigerator — I pored over them. I tried not to read [what was left of] the book politely.

And then I came to the end. And look away now, if you’re still with me, because I’m going to talk about the ending, and it’s the best part of the book — it’s the novel’s defining moment, all action and thought ambling toward it. So, shoo, if you’re spoiler-icked-out. Here goes:

The town — under the leadership of Gamart — has made clear its animosity and aversion. [And, besides, the only people on Florence’s side are a) a hermit — Edmund Brundish’s letter to Florence: “. . . no one has been courageous enough to sell books in Hardborough.” — and the bossy ten-year-old girl who helps around at the shop. And even they get bad news by the novel nears its conclusion. Jesus, Miss Penelope Fitzgerald. Come on.]

Basically, Florence Green gets run out of Hardborough. The town throws everything at her: contrived laws, small-town pressures, a lot of meddling. And Florence can’t bear the weight of it all. I don’t even blame her, you know. See the last sentence of the book:

As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.

Dude. The town had not wanted a bookshop.  There is no happy ending. When I picked it up — where did I first hear about this? — I was expecting this book to be one of those quaint little novels that will soon enough bare its teeth. For isn’t that always the case? And, ya know, Fitzgerald fights the Quaint, but that ending really annoyed me. I suddenly wanted quaint all the way. I wanted a gahdamned happy ending.

But I’ve thought about it since that moment I grit my teeth and shoved the book back into the crates. I mean, is that not an effective ending? How calculated — how clever a decision of a writer’s.

How painful is it, Dear Readers, to be told a story that you would love to have celebrated literature—but instead ran the proprietor of the only bookshop in town for years out of town. Oh, the pain.

Perhaps I wasn’t really annoyed and sad about the book’s ending. Perhaps I was annoyed and sad because that ending, it was distressingly all-too-real. Boo.

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3 comments

  1. The pain indeed. I read this last year but I was never bored with it :) Reading this post reminded me that I never posted about this book (and a lot of others) in my blog. It also made me think that I could simply link to this post if and when I discuss my first encounter with Penelope Lively as you expressed things better than what I left stewing in my brain. Except the part about being bored :)

  2. My partner and I listened to this on tape a couple of years ago while on a long drive, but I think I must reread it because of my increasing interest in the workings of book folks. Thanks for the review.

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