Book 520: The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald

I did not realize this one was a Man Booker Award Short List nominee when I started it. I expected fluff and lightness but realized within a few chapters that this was a lot better written than I was mentally prepared for when I selected to read it because it was one of the shortest books left on my list.

I would say this book reminds me of Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, but I honestly think Chocolat (because it was published so much later) got a lot from this type of book. The idea of someone coming into a town (no matter how long you’ve been in the town you’re still not from there) and basically stirring up the locals is a tried-and-true trope. The difference between this and Chocolat is that Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is written so subtly that the magic you see in this book isn’t actual magic. IT is emotions and growth and community.

Fitzgerald didn’t need any of the flash or panache that Harris uses so effectively. Fitzgerald’s writing is subtle and luxurious and in nothing is lost in the shortness of this work. At 163 pages it was one of the shortest works left on my to-be-read list, but with how Fitzgerald writes it has a much more profound impact than a work 10 times the size (I’m looking at you Les Misérables).

As I mention above, I was expecting something light and fluffy along the lines of a beach read, but I had to go back and look at the book (my digital copy didn’t have the Booker Prize language on the front cover) to see why I felt so different about reading this than I would about a light read. I was astounded at how beautiful Fitzgerald’s writing was. It is so rare that the words in a book evoke a blanket I can curl up in, or the warm waves slowly moving you along when you stand chest deep at the height of the ocean’s summer warmth, without trying.

I liked that the book was firmly set in a small town of busy-bodies in East Anglia and it was basically a year in the life. Florence Green, the protagonist, is an older woman and she wants to open a bookshop so she does it. It all comes to a head however, when she decides to sell and promote Nabokov’s Lolita. It’s interesting how everything happens and how Fitzgerald creates this beautiful work that could be cacophonous but is no more than a whisper with the same impact.

I am interested in seeing how the film adaptation in 2017 worked, but I’m not sure I want to spoil the beauty of the novel. Fitzgerald walked a fine line with her minor characters that I’m not sure most directors/writers can do. The minor characters have just enough development that I was interested in them, but not so much that they took over the story. Christine Gipping and her family could easily have drowned out Florence because of their poverty and sheer number, but they didn’t. The same goes for Mrs Gamart and Milo—both of whom could’ve come across as caricatures, but don’t—the town matron and big city media personality respectively.

Recommendation: This is a beautiful book that should be more widely read. It also provides hope for undiscovered older writers! Fitzgerald launched her literary career at the age of 58 and was not only shortlisted for the Booker Prize for this novel, but won it the next year for Offshore which I’m going to have to read after how beautiful this one was.

Opening Line: “In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not.”

Closing Line: “”


13 thoughts on “Book 520: The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald”

    1. Oh that’s sad about Offshore, but I wonder if it suffers like most do from the prize that it’s not the best, just the most convoluted/difficult for laypeople to read.


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