This is most definitely not a review of Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop. Many more-able and more deeply lit-crit-educated (new word amalgamation, I know!) persons have reviewed Fitzgerald's works so that is not even necessary in the world of books. I was introduced to her through Hermione Lee's biography of her, which I started reading as an ARC (props to Edelweiss). The need to move house intervened in my being able to finish that excellent work, but I knew I needed to find out what all the fuss was about.
First and foremost, the basics of Penelope Fitzgerald (to simplify extremely) are that she was the product of two highly educated and religiously polarized families in England. One of her first books, published when she was nearly 60 years old, was a biography of her famous father and uncles who she greatly admired. Her first fiction, The Golden Child, was published a couple of years later. In all, her fiction garnered one Man Booker Prize (Offshore) and three other Booker nominations (The Bookshop was one of these) and the National Book Critics Circle Award (The Blue Flower). Pretty amazing for a list of only nine books!
So far, I have read four of Fitzgerald's slim books, and I have enjoyed each of them, but The Bookshop was probably my favorite so far. It involves a quiet and unassuming widow who decides to invest her meager savings in opening a bookshop in her very removed coastal town. Oddly enough, it is not a decision that is greeted with uniform approval by the populace, although there is no book-selling competition and no obvious disagreement. But power is power even when the realm is small, and there is always someone who enjoys wielding it.
No, the road is not smooth for prospective shop owner Florence Green. At one point she is forced to fight off a lawsuit directed at a successful window display for Lolita, not because of the book's content, but because the display is a claimed to be attracting so much attention that it is hindering the local power broker from "carry[ing] out her shopping expeditiously," among other things. (p105) Her new shop, behind which she also lives, is also the home of a rapper or poltergeist.
‘Your rapper’s been at my spanners,’ said the plumber, without rancour, when she came to see how the work was going forward. His tool bag had been upended and scattered; pale blue tiles with a nice design of waterlilies had been flung broadside about the upstairs passage. The bathroom, with its water supply half connected, had the alert air of having witnessed something. (p14-15)
Reading The Bookshop will remind you what excellent writing feels like: not huge words and complex sentences but the simplicity of perfect word choices and a finely hewn plot. It's being able to project a wealth of feeling in the fewest words, to make the reader experience the joy, pain or betrayal of the lives being portrayed on the page. It feels entirely effortless, yet you may want to sit for a minute just to absorb what you've read because it's that good. Yeah. Read this.
Buy this book