The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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January 17, 2011

The Bookshop

This book has been tucked away on my bookshelves for a long time. I'm not sure when I bought it...I was probably drawn to the subject (a single woman opening a bookstore in a small English town), more than to the author, because I had never read Penelope Fitzgerald before.  {I'm laughing because Roses over a Cottage Door said that she mixes up her Penelopes -- Fitzgerald and Lively -- and so did I.} I was very happy to see it chosen by Karen at Cornflower Books as her reading group book for January, because it meant that I'd finally read it, and as it turned out, short, funny, and moving was the perfect recipe for the past two weeks.

'Now, Mrs. Green, if you'd catch hold of the tongue, I wouldn't ask anybody, 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.'
Florence Green is a middle-aged widow who buys The Old House in the seaside town of Hardborough with the steely determination to open a bookshop, against the advice or objections of everyone from her bank manager to the lady of the manor, who wants her building for an arts center. On the other hand, she's supported by Mr. Raven, the above-quoted marshman, and Mr. Brundish, an eccentric recluse who becomes her strongest ally.

Whether it's Miss Read, or Barbara Pym, or Trollope, or Angela Thirkell, or Elizabeth Gaskell, I'm very often drawn to these English-villagers-at-arms novels. There's wonderful (if blacker) humor in Penelope Fitzgerald's characters and scenes (I especially liked the days when the lending library opens). But then there were twists, and things that didn't come together until the end, and a sudden shift in the mood and tone of the story.  There's a wrenching that comes when you start with quirky and feisty and end up somewhere else, and that's the sign of a very good novelist and a very well-crafted novel.

It's been a pleasure to read this along with so many other people. Like Dovegreyreader, I think this is a book I will reread, and soon.  Lyn (at I Prefer Reading) found a very interesting article by Hermione Lee, who is writing a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald.

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Aimee said...

I have put this book on my TBR list because it has been getting so much exposure on blogs right now! So glad to hear you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Good to read this, as I have just put the book in my Amazon basket where it is vying for 'please buy me next' position with about fifteen others.....

Frances said...

Really appreciated how dark and twisted the end of the story is. Fitzgerald offers nothing redemptive about the power of books or reading for those in the town that oppose. Unflinching. Powerful little book like everything I have read by her.

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