CBR 11 Bingo – Not My Wheelhouse
Halfway through this extremely short novel I was preparing the scathing review I was sure I was going to leave here. A comedy of manners without comedy, a too-precious by half story, the personification of the word “quaint.” All of these were phrases I was planning to deploy with devastating effectiveness. But then something happened. Not in the plot, although there is a slight story here, but in the effect the novel was having on me.
Middle-aged widow Florence Green is living out her days in a small English seaside town when she gets it into her head to open up a bookshop. The town doesn’t have one and she cherishes the memory of her time working in one before her marriage. Though she her ambitions are small and her manner inoffensive, somehow her little shop stirs up a hornet’s nest of controversy and a wave of opposition rises up against her.
The core of the opposition lies in the town’s society maven, who resents that Florence has opened a shop in the oldest building in town. Even though it had been in disuse for years and was available for sale, she had vague plans to do something with the building in connection with the arts, and resents Florence for buying the building she wanted.
There are other difficulties as well. The people of the town don’t demonstrate a great need for a bookstore, nor much willingness to pay for books. The local child she hires for help is a double-edged sword, remarkably efficient but mean enough to turn off some customers. Even her greatest financial success, her decision to stock a certain controversial Russian novel, comes back to bite her.
As the forces marshaling themselves against Florence and her little shop grow stronger, the disparity between their malice and the inoffensiveness of the bookshop becomes ridiculous. When Florence, who has seemed like a plain, ordinary person all along, starts to show some unexpected backbone by resisting the onslaught on her shop, the reader’s sympathy can’t help but shift to her side. And as the situation reaches it’s inevitable conclusion, your heart will break for her.
Halfway through The Bookshop I thought I knew where it was going and how I felt about it. I wasn’t giving Penelope Fitzgerald enough credit. She knew exactly what she was doing and the effect she was going for. Every once in a while, it’s nice to be proven wrong.