Book Review: The Bookshop

The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald

This was actually my second time reading The Bookshop. When I first read it back in January of 2002, I think I expected it to be some cozy little tale of a woman opening a bookshop. Florence Green does indeed open a bookshop in a small village in England, but Fitzgerald’s story never comes close to being cozy. The first time I read it I was so discombobulated at having my expectations challenged, that I really didn’t take much of it in. Since then I have had it in my head to re-read this one to see what I might have missed. When I stumbled across a copy at a charity shop in late September I considered it a sign and bought it. When I culled my TBR pile to see what I could include in the November Novella Challenge there sat The Bookshop just waiting for me.

I am glad I took the time to re-read it, but I also see why I was disappointed the first time around. In essence it is a tale of a failed experiment (the opening of the bookshop), the limitations of the woman who opened it, and the petty jealousies of the small town crowd who made trouble for her along the way and ultimately got her booted off of her property.

As other reviewers will point out, there is a lot going on in this 123-page novella, but ultimately for me, not enough to make me fully like this book. I kind of like it, but I had a hard time suspending my own personal animus at Florence’s inability to run the shop properly. I wouldn’t have held her failure against her if she had done everything right and failed, but her lack of managerial talent was more than my over-organized brain could handle. Slow to make decisions, sloppy with the accounts, and without proper focus, Florence’s bookshop doesn’t last long. I enjoyed reading it, and some of the characters and scenes in the book will stick with me. But I can’t really muster much in the way of enthusiasm.

November Novella Challenge: 1 down, 3 to go.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Bookshop

  1. Book Psmith November 10, 2009 / 9:39 pm

    I thought that Florence went into business with a level of naivete' that must be inherent in any owner's first venture but she learned quickly and tried to correct her mistakes as she went along. Her learning curve however could not outpace the maliciousness of those who set out to see her destroyed. She did have a period of success, so I can't help but wonder how long that would have continued if not for the likes of Mrs. Gamart.


  2. Amanda November 10, 2009 / 10:40 pm

    I read this book a few years ago and felt the same way. I was surprised by the course the novella took and couldn't find much likable in any of the characters. I should pick it up again and give it a second chance, though.


  3. bookheaper November 11, 2009 / 5:05 am

    Yes, I remember feeling quite depressed when I finished reading this years ago (probably because I nurse secret longings to own a village bookshop – though George Orwell has salutary things to say about this which also warn me off). PF is a very good writer but when you are left feeling low at the end of a book, you think you might as well just read the newspaper.


  4. verity November 11, 2009 / 5:12 am

    I had similar feelings on reading the book- it didn't quite live up to what I was expecting from it. Don't let it put you off Fitzgerald though – she has some wonderfully quirky writing.


  5. Rachel November 11, 2009 / 5:58 am

    Oh. I've heard this is excellent but perhaps I'll lower my expectations for when I do get around to reading it. I don't want to be disappointed like you have been!

    It is my dream to have my own bookshop but I fear I would come to the same sticky end as poor Florence!


  6. Paperback Reader November 11, 2009 / 6:54 am

    Thomas, I think that you have succinctly summed up why I didn't empathise with Florence and why she isn't very memorable: her ineptness.

    The novella made an impression on me because of the harshness of the ending and the cruelty of the villagers; I think Fitzgerald characterised their snobbishness and/or disinterest/fickleness wonderfully well. It is an absorbing read but not one that I out-and-out loved.


  7. theliterarystew November 11, 2009 / 7:43 am

    I still haven't read any books by Penelope Lively. I'm also interested in the Photograph, which you reviewed recently. I wonder which one I should start with? They both sound good.


  8. jennysbooks November 11, 2009 / 7:51 am

    I had a hard time with this book too, but I've never been sure whether it was just because I was crushed that the bookshop closed in the end. I've heard so many wonderful things about Penelope Fitzgerald, I should really give another of her books a try.


  9. Thomas November 11, 2009 / 11:47 am

    Book Psmith: You sum it up better than I could. However, don't you think your learning curve would have been much faster? And what about her success selling Lolita? Weren't you a bit surprised that she ordered 250 copies?

    Amanda: I am glad I read it a second time, so it would probably be worth your time. I think the only character I truly liked was the 10 year old who rapped Mrs. Gamert on the knuckles for touching the libary books out of turn.

    Bookheaper: I don't mind feeling low at the end of a book. That's why I like Anita Brookner so much. And there is an Anita Brookner blurb on the front of this edtion. Maybe that is why I expected more…

    Verity: I agree that Fitzgerald is definitely worth reading. I have also read the Gate of Angels and plan to read more of her work.

    Rachel: Which of us doesn't dream of having a bookshop (mine would be second hand)? Just don't think about those fantasies when you read this book.

    Paperback Reader: Perhaps absorbing ambivalence is the way to sum it up.

    Literary Stew: I think you may be mixing up your Penelopes–Lively and Fitzgerald. I think Lively is much more accessible (perhaps less layered, more modern) than Fitzgerald but both worth a read. For my money if you are looking to read Lively start with Consequences. I LOVED that book.

    Jenny: I am defintely going to read more Fitzgerald.


  10. Book Psmith November 11, 2009 / 1:24 pm

    I was a little suprised at the 250 and I thought there would be more of an uproar about her selling it. As much as I would love to, I couldn't own a bookstore unless I was a billionaire who didn't care about losing money. I would probably carry a stock that would appeal to the smallest segment of the population and I would waste too much money on trying to create a certain look and feel to the store. So much for my learning curve:)


  11. Matthew November 11, 2009 / 4:50 pm

    I read this a few years ago because the title got my attention. (How can it not?) I was somewhat disappointed that even though there's much going on within the novella, it evokes a sense of incompleteness. Florence was indeed naive in her enterprise and surprisingly, I do not feel sympathy for her. It's the kind of book that only grabs you the moment you're reading it.


  12. Thomas November 11, 2009 / 7:05 pm

    Book Psmith: I guess you are right about that, my bookshop would probably also have limited appeal.

    Matthew: I think you hit the nail on the head with “incompleteness”. That is indeed how it feels.


  13. citizenreader November 11, 2009 / 7:34 pm

    I may have to differ a bit here. I LOVED this book; thought it was pure genius throughout, and wasn't disappointed by the length or incompleteness at all.

    I couldn't be too upset about Florence's ineptness, because I think the book business is slightly unlike any other business–it calls to readers more than it calls to true business-people, and readers can sometimes have very little patience for finances and marketing and, well, anything but reading. That part of her character seemed to ring very true to me.

    The absolute ugly viciousness of the townspeople who were opposing Florence–for no good reason, really, except pettiness–also rang true to me. I think big cities can be just as ugly as small towns, but there is something in small communities that really seeks to punish anyone with slightly different ideas. (Or such has been my experience.)

    Anyway. I've already gone on too long, but if you're ever up for some more Penelope, consider a collection of her letters. I think even if you're not big on her prose style she was a fascinating woman, and I'm humbled by her forthright considerations and dissections of human nature.


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