The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald is a curious little book. It tells the story of Florence Green, an elderly, kind-hearted widow who decides to open a bookshop in her small coastal town of Hardborough, England, in 1959. She purchases the ‘Old House,’ a dilapidated structure that had remained vacant for several years. Although she meets with opposition, most notably from Mrs. Gamart, a prominent member of the community, Florence remains undaunted and eventually succeeds in opening the bookshop in the Old House, taking up residence on the second floor. She is fully aware—as is everyone in the community—that she shares her residence with a poltergeist (“a rapper”) who intermittently makes its presence felt with loud bangs and other noisy interruptions.
Florence’s efforts as a bookshop owner yield initial success. She starts a lending library and hires the ten-year old Christine Gipping as her assistant. But Florence’s success proves to be her downfall. Complaints are launched about the crowds lining outside her bookshop to purchase a copy of Lolita. Florence is eventually undone by Mrs. Gamart’s nephew who succeeds in passing an act of Parliament that permits the government to order a compulsory purchase of the Old House. The law is used as a weapon by those in power to get their way. The bank abandons Florence; her neighbors don’t rally to her support. The novel concludes with Florence admitting defeat as she exits town.
The novel was disappointing. The title was misleading since this is not a novel about a bookshop but about small-minded, selfish people, not one of whom is a particularly engaging or well-developed character. Florence is kindly and gentle and a formidable fighter when backed into a corner. But it is never made clear why she decides to open a bookshop, especially since she doesn’t display an inordinate passion for books. She just decides to do it, does it, succeeds temporarily, and then is forced to shut down. She is convinced a bookshop is a good idea that will benefit the community. But she underestimates the lengths people will go to resist change.
The subplot with the resident poltergeist is baffling since it is never developed. One wonders why it was included in the first place. Florence is nonplussed by the rapper, taking its presence in stride. And for its part, the rapper does nothing more than clutter about upstairs or make the occasional loud noise. Nothing comes of it, and it all seems a rather superfluous addition.
At 123 pages, the novel is a quick and easy read, but it isn’t one I would necessarily recommend.