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29th January
written by Steph

Go to a bookshop and find this book!

Despite being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978, I’m willing to be most people aren’t familiar with the novel The Bookshop or its author Penelope Fitzgerald.  I’m actually pretty surprised Fitzgerald hasn’t received more attention from the book blogging community, given that we’re comprised of people who love books! And what do you think a book called The Bookshop is about?  Books! The Bookshop is a relatively short novel that chronicles the struggles that a widow named Florence Green faces when she decides to convert an old abandoned house in the sleepy town of Hardborough into the town’s first bookstore.  Florence faces several obstacles along her way, including a skeptical bank manager, a bumbling solicitor, but worst of all is Mrs. Violet Gamart, who wants the old house for the arts center she believes Hardborough desperately needs.  Mrs. Gamart is not one who is easily dissuaded, and she’s determined to ruin Florence’s plans and have the building for herself, no matter what it takes! The Bookshop is a quiet, reflective novel, one filled with subtle humor and the highs and lows that make up quotidian life (although there is a small supernatural aspect – the home Florence buys is haunted by a poltergeist - which was fun, even if its inclusion was a little bemusing).  I don’t think it’s correct to say that nothing happens in it, that it is strongly driven by the characters internal life alone, but it is not a fast-paced, heart racing type of book; reading it felt like taking a relaxed, meandering stroll through the English countryside. The book is populated by eccentric, spirited characters, but it never feels outlandish or overly zany. The writing was dense in patches, but overall I thought the writing was very lovely and poetic.  Moreover, I thought the book ends perfectly, the final sentence packing a huge wallop. I felt like I had been punched in the solar plexus as I read it, the breath stolen from my body.  This book is deceptively somber and sobering, even if there is a sense of whimsy about its pages. It is about the struggle to survive, to see things through to the end, even if success is not assured. Sometimes a risk must be taken, but it may not turn out as we had hoped. Once more I’m forced to fall back on the recommendation scheme I used when it came to The Blue Castle: if you are a fan of Persephone novels, then this is a title that is worth your time to find and read.  At just over 100 pages, it won’t take you long, but it will be worth it.  A quaint little book with which to pass a few hours on a quiet afternoon.  The edition I purchased came with a copy of what some argue is Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Blue Flower, which I will certainly try in the future! Of course, I intend to re-read this one and seek out other works by Fitzgerald as well.  She’s a strong writer with an interesting perspective; I think it would be a real shame for her books to be lost to us all.
She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught.  The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three quarters of the way out.  The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable.  They had taken on too much.
Rating: 4 out of 5


  1. I read and (briefly) reviewed this in July last year and, like you, thought the ending packed a punch – it was HARSH but perfect. It’s a very under-rated, wonderful little book.

  2. I have a copy of this book, but hadn’t seen it mentioned before. I’ll have to push it up the TBR pile!

  3. 01/29/2010

    I am one of those that had not heard of this book or author, prior to your review. I’m adding this to my list. Any book that can pack a wallop right at the end, is my kind of story!

  4. mee

    Penelope Fitzgerald and this book have been on my radar for a few months now, but somehow, like you, I’ve never seen them mentioned in the blogosphere. So it’s great that you read and posted about it! I might get to it sometime this year.

  5. 01/29/2010

    I read Fitzgerald’s Offshore last year and enjoyed it. It sounds similar in that the writing was dense but lovely, the characters were on the quirky side, there’s little plot, and the ending packed wallop. I’ll keep this one in mind for my next Fitzgerald venture.

  6. 01/30/2010

    @ Claire: I went back and read your review of this book and it sounds like we did have very similar reactions to it. I’m really surprised more people haven’t read it, since it’s so short but so rich! Not uplifting, but it’s amazing the punch it packs given its relatively small size!
    @ Jackie: I know you didn’t enjoy the one Fitzgerald book you read, but I think you could have better luck with this one. It may still be too “gentle” for you, but I think it sounds like there’s more plot to keep you interested as well.
    @ Kathleen: I can’t even remember how I finally heard about Fitzgerald, but I’m really glad I did! And the ending is perfectly devastating!
    @ mee: I’ve seen a few other Fitzgerald titles mentioned here and there, but the subject of this one definitely appealed to me most so I decided to start with it. A really good choice, I think, so I do hope you get to try it at some point!
    @ Teresa: Somehow it completely slipped my notice that you’d read a Fitzgerald novel! Based on your review of that one, I do think you’ll enjoy this one a good deal. I’ll probably tackle The Blue Flower next as I already own it, but I admit that Offshore appeals to me and I’ll probably grab a copy of it if I ever find one!

  7. 01/30/2010

    I read this one maybe a year or two ago; I liked it but didn’t love it, and I’m not sure why, exactly, as it’s the kind of book I normally love. There was something flat about the writing for me, maybe. Anyway, I liked the idea behind the book, and I’m willing to read more Fitzgerald to give her another try. The Blue Flower is on my shelves, so that’s next.

  8. 01/30/2010

    Where are you finding these lovely books? I’ve struck out on The Blue Castle, because once again, my library failed me, and all the online editions are pricey. At least Powells has The Bookshop!

  9. 01/31/2010

    This has been on my wishlist ever since Claire brought it to my attention. It sounds wonderful, so thank you for reminding me that I NEED to read it!

    (PS to Jill: Gutenberg has The Blue Castle!)

  10. 01/31/2010

    @ Dorothy: I think I found the writing a bit inconsistent at time – generally quite strong, but there were parts that maybe felt a bit flat in places. But overall I really liked the tone of the book, and I enjoyed the story too. We’ll see how things go with The Blue Flower!
    @ softdrink: The Blue Castle I got while back home in Canada, but this one I got when I was browsing the shelves at my favorite bookshop in the world, McKay’s!
    @ Nymeth: I really think you’ll like this one. And thanks for the info for those interested in The Blue Castle that it can be accessed on Project Gutenberg!

  11. 01/31/2010

    I’m actually receiving this book at a book swap with another book blogger. I look forward to reading it. Sounds like a pleasant and short read.

  12. 02/01/2010

    I am surprised that I have never heard of this book! It sounds like just the type of book I would love, and the quote you provided was just lovely! I am very interested in reading this, and I like that you mention that the characters with all their eccentricities aren’t overly zany. I think there are a lot of books out there that overdo the zaniness of the characters, and when you read them, you find out there is not much else going for them besides the weirdness.

  13. 02/03/2010

    @ Mrs.B: I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts on this one! I do think you’ll enjoy it, even if it isn’t especially happy…
    @ zibilee: I think it is hard to make characters who are eccentric but still believable, and I think Fitzgerald does this well. They are kooky, but it works well for the story she is telling and is never distracting. The ways in which the people in this book are weird are the way people in real life are weird, so I think that’s why it works.

  14. 02/04/2010

    This book sounds right up my alley! I will definitely have to check it out soon.

  15. Kay

    This definitely sounds like a must read! I am currently taking note of literary titles since I want to read more of it this year, and I think I’ll add this one to my (infinite) list. I love the excerpt you added to your review.

  16. 02/12/2010

    @ Molly: I hope you’re able to find a copy and that you enjoy it! I think you will!
    @ Kay: I think this is the kind of book that you would like! It’s not as wild as most of the stuff you read, but I think you’ll like it nonetheless!

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