THE BOOKSHOP by Penelope Fitzgerald


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 On the heels of The Blue Flower (1997), here's a slighter, equally charming, half as deep little novel--about snobbery and meanness in the provinces--that the immensely gifted Fitzgerald published in England in 1978. It's 1959, and the ``small, wispy and wiry'' Florence Green, a widow and middle-aged, wants to open a bookshop in the little, bleak, remote, sea-swept East Anglian town of Hardborough. And so she borrows money to buy her stock and, as a place to house both it and herself, the High Street building known as Old House, over half a millennium old and faultless except for being damp and haunted. But as Mr. Raven, the marshman, says, Florence ``don't frighten,'' which is why he has her hold onto a horse's tongue while he files its teeth. What Florence hasn't counted on, though, is the studied malevolence of Hardborough's social illuminary and civic leader, Mrs. Gamart, who now says she wanted Old House for an ``arts centre.'' And things, indeed, start going wrong for Florence--not from the real ghost, who seems frightening but harmless, but from inexplicable changes in statute, policy, and law. When Florence is tipped off by a slippery ex-BBC employee that she ought to stock Lolita, she questions only whether it's a ``good book''--and so she asks the town's one true aristocrat, the dour Edmund Brundish, veteran of WW I. He says it's good (though he dies soon after), but Florence's troubles still grow only worse, both before and after Nabokov sells out. Readers will learn the sorry end, while enjoying on the way a wondrous cast of townsfolk, including Florence's assistant, the sweetly tough Christine Gipping, who, at 11, as Florence says, ``has the ability to classify, and that can't be taught,'' though she does make an error (true human style) that costs dear. Pitch-perfect in every tone, note, and detail: unflinching, humane, and wonderful.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-395-86946-3
Page count: 128pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1997


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