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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Bookshop

Title: The Bookshop
Author: Penelope Fitzgerald
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978
Length: 123 pages
Availability: The Bookshop - US
The Bookshop - UK
The Bookshop - Canada
La libraire - France
Die Buchhandlung - Deutschland
La libreria - Italia
La librería - España
  • The Bookshop was made into a film in 2017, directed by Isabel Coixet and starring Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy

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Our Assessment:

A- : a well-turned and surprisingly rich quick, hard tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 23/1//1978 Martyn Goff
FAZ . 6/5/2000 Alexandra Kemmerer
The LA Times . 27/8/1997 Richard Eder
The NY Rev. of Books . 4/12/2014 Alan Hollinghurst
The NY Times Book Rev. A 7/9/1997 Valentine Cunningham
The Spectator . 4/11/1978 Francis King
Sunday Telegraph . 19/11/1978 Mary Sullivan
Sunday Times . 26/11/1978 Anne Redmon
The Times . 2//11/1978 Derek Parker
TLS . 17/11/1978 Valentine Cunningham
The Washington Post . 17/9/1997 Jonathan Yardley

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus; many very impressed, others find it rather slight

  From the Reviews:
  • "Not only was the idea good, the telling is effective. The book has humour, words are carefully chosen, dialogue, even that of eccentric old Mr Brundish, is convincing. Yet it doesn't add up to the little tour-de-force that was waiting in the wings. Perhaps it is too long for a short story and too short for a novel. Perhaps the occasional lapse in detail in a realistic novel distances the reader too much" - Martyn Goff, Daily Telegraph

  • "Die Buchhandlung zeigt Penelope Fitzgerald als eine Meisterin des Details, aber auch der Kunst des Weglassens. Mit wenigen Zügen zeichnet sie Charaktere von bestechender Intensität und Bilder, die lange im Gedächtnis bleiben. Ihr erzählerischer Blick ist so liebevoll wie unbarmherzig. Zwischen mit Bedacht gesetzten Akzenten gleitet der Text auf einer Oberfläche hintergründigen Humors, die plötzlich ins Tragische durchbricht. Fitzgeralds Präzision verlangt dem Leser Sorgfalt ab" - Alexandra Kemmerer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(A) sketch of coarsening modern times and the defeat of humane discrimination by the treacherous undercurrents in a bucolic and amiable community. (...) Even in this early work, ostensibly slight, slightly rickety but curiously affecting, Fitzgerald displays the combination of depth and buoyancy that marks such later masterpieces as The Beginning of Spring and most recently, The Blue Flower. Her funerals are real and so is the champagne that gets produced at them. The dead are comic and also dead." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Penelope Fitzgerald's novel The Bookshop is a little gem, a vintage narrative -- first published in 1978 -- of parochial English life in the late 1950's, a classic whose force as a piece of physical and moral map making has not merely lasted but has actually improved with the passage of years. (...) Fitzgerald pounces with unerring insight on the nasty, manipulative ways of a class-drenched culture's self-appointed managers." - Valentine Cunningham, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It sounds like nothing, but Penelope Fitzgerald has made it into a solid and satisfying piece of human life, and is able to convince the reader that every action in it matters, however small -- the same consolation as can be found in Jane Austen, though the two writers are not alike (.....) The only flaw in the book is Mrs Gamart's motivation." - Francis King, The Spectator

  • "The Bookshop is funny and accurate, though also often inconsequential. It ends hastily, as though the author had thought to elicit more from the subject, but suddenly changed her mind." - Mary Sullivan, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The novel is affecting but slight; perhaps it would appeal to a literary palate more refined than mine." - Anne Redmon, Sunday Times

  • "(A) harmless, conventional little anecdote, charming enough, well-tailored but uninvolving." - Derek Parker, The Times

  • "Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop is on any reckoning a marvellously piercing fiction. (...) Further, and more seriously still, The Bookshop -- fiercely, rousingly -- analyses the operations of power. (...) Above all, the story's refusal of sentiment will not let Florence off unblameable." - Valentine Cunningham, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Bookshop is a deceptively quiet novel. (...) One could scarcely imagine a bare plot less likely to yield drama or interest, yet Fitzgerald locates in it rich and surprising stuff." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Bookshop opens in 1959, with widow Florence Green taking the leap and opening a bookshop in the sleepy and isolated seaside town she has lived in for nearly a decade, Hardborough -- "an island between sea and river", where everything is damp or wet and everyone knows everyone's business. She purchases a long-vacant property called Old House, one of the oldest properties in the town, and sets up shop there. She has some experience in the business, but Hardborough seems an unlikely place to be able to make a go of it with books; still, there's no competition, locally or even nearby, and Florence is both determined and at least somewhat realistic -- understanding, for example, that: "Culture is for amateurs. I can't run my shop at a loss".
       As it turns out, Florence is stepping on some toes with her venture. When she has set her plan in motion, Florence is invited to a party at local grande dame Violet Gamart's, who let's her know that she had been eyeing Old House with: "the idea of converting it into some kind of centre -- I mean an arts centre -- for Hardborough". Given that the house had stood empty for so long, and that Florence's interest in the property was surely common knowledge in the town during the six months she had been negotiating the purchase -- everything is common knowledge in this town ... --, she can only wonder why Mrs Gamart didn't take any action sooner. Though she briefly considers deferring to the powerful woman, she decides to stay on and stay the course.
       Florence gets a young assistant, ten-year old Christine Gipping, who comes to help out. It's the year leading up to the girl's eleven-plus exams, which will determine her future -- whether she goes on to Flintmarket Grammar School or is shunted off onto the Technical track. (As her mother explains, the Technical track is not one she wants to be on: "It's what we call a death sentence. I've nothing against the Technical, but it just means this: what chance will she ever have of meeting and marrying a white-collar chap ?") Christine is still at that age of complete self-assurance; she's also quite able -- though she has no patience for books, an attribute that Florence understands has its advantages: "she never reads the books. She's an ideal assistant in that way. She only reads Bunty".
       The grandest of the locals, more respected even than the Gamarts, is Edmund Brundish, who lives in practically complete isolation. He sends Florence a note congratulating her on the opening of the shop and while he apologizes that he won't be visiting it, as he never goes out, he would subscribe to her circulating library, if she sets one up -- which she then does, though it takes her a while to get the hang of that part of the business. Christine also proves adept at taking charge here -- until the disastrous first visit by Mrs Gamart to the premises. Used to deference all around, Mrs Gamart does not receive it from the young girl, who lashes out when Mrs Gamart doesn't play by the rules. In choosing to comfort Christine rather than rush after Mrs Gamart and apologize in the aftermath Florence at the very least adds another big nail to the coffin; her fate might not be completely sealed, but a noose is tightening.
       Florence turns to Brundish for advice when she is recommended a new book, Nabokov's Lolita, and is uncertain whether she should carry it. She is then even invited to Brundish's home -- an honor even Mrs Gamart has not had -- and he gives his stamp of approval: "It is a good book, and therefore you should try to sell it to the inhabitants of Hardborough". He also proves knowledgeable about the goings-on in town, and some of the dangers facing Florence, not least in the form of the powerful Mrs Gamart.
       Florence does stock Lolita -- not only stocking it, but going all-in, ordering two hundred and fifty copies (even: "Christine was aghast at the large numbers ordered"). It turns out to be rather a success -- attracting crowds, even (though in fact the bookshop mostly seems quite busy, with at least a few people milling about). But here, too, Mrs Gamart uses it as an occasion to step up what amount to subtle but increasingly effective attacks on the shop.
       A bookshop opens up in nearby Saxford Tye, then a Public Library is established in Hardborough -- obviating the need for Florence's circulating library. A school inspector even shows up, and immediately focuses on the hours underage Christine is putting in. But the real danger lurks much deeper in the shadows, as a nephew of Mrs Gamart's is an MP, and a bill of his slowly wends its way through parliament and into law .....
       Florence does have one great supporter, Brundish, and the old man even goes so far as to venture out and visit Mrs Gamart, to put her on notice: "I want you to leave my friend Florence Green alone", he shouts at her. Alas, he is unable to follow through with his protection. All that has conspired against Florence quickly shuts its sharp trap, crushing her and her enterprise.
       The Bookshop is a tight, hard, short little novel. It's concision doesn't make for a sketch-like work; Fitzgerald's scenes and narrative convey all the essentials without excessive exposition. Typical is the connection between Florence and Brundish -- including her recognition, when they meet: "that loneliness was speaking to loneliness" -- and how, even though they only speak in person that single time, Brundish is willing to do the almost unthinkable and venture out to make clear to Mrs Gamart that Florence enjoys his complete protection. (The encounter is also amusing in typical Fitzgeraldian fashion, with Brundish clearly not used to engaging in conversation, and blurting out what goes through his mind during this encounter right along with what he means to say to Mrs Gamart, including the less than helpful observation that: "Either this woman is stupid, or else she is malevolent".) As with so many well-meaning acts in the novel, this too goes all wrong -- another appealing aspect to The Bookshop, which unsentimentally doesn't look for or create artificial good turns but rather displays life as it so much more often really is, in all its human pettiness and disappointments.
       The Bookshop captures its time and place very well, this provincial Hardborough a typical English backwater anno 1960, with few modern conveniences and rigid social hierarchies and order. There's a clear separation of who mixes with whom, and there are those with power -- like Mrs Gamart -- who can exert dominion in quiet but horribly effective ways. Fitzgerald beautifully presents how Mrs Gamart pulls the strings from the shadows, her hand almost never even seen, but clearly responsible for practically all of it. Mrs Gamart's plotting is brilliantly insidious, as is Fitzgerald's presentation of it and Florence's resulting undoing.
       Florence's small blunders, especially in dealing with others, facilitate the easing out of her, as so many people find reason not to be supportive. Often enough she is right in her attitude, such as with her lawyers, but her propensity to storm ahead without really considering the consequences obviously is damaging. But then this attitude, especially at its most defensively blinkered, also allows her to get where she wants to be, at least with the bookshop, at least for a while -- so also, for example, with a nice little scene early on that has her once again trying to ignore what her accountant is telling her:

It often seemed to her that if she knew exactly what her financial position was down to the last three farthings, as Ivy Welford impressed upon her that she should, she would not have the courage to carry on for another day.
       Hardborough is like an organism all its own, a community in which everyone knows everyone's business, down to the last place they've been and person they met (and the subject of practically each and every conversation), and one of Florence's problems is that she is incapable of fitting herself right in; even after nearly a decade there she remains an outsider of sorts, even if it is never really openly expressed as such. She also finds herself incapable of doing the smaller favors asked of her -- much less the bigger ones --, outrageous though most of these are; worse yet, she can't find the excuses and manner that might assuage the feelings that choose to be hurt. She can't really reach out either, not effectively, even as there are those that might be supports, or that she might support -- Brundish and Christine, in particular (whose fates, typically, then wind up even bleaker than hers, as if proximity and Florence's touch are actually a curse).
       Even odd elements such as the spirit haunting Old House are quite well-handled, taking some of the serious edge off what is after all a rather bleak story; there's good humor here too, if of a no-nonsense English kind. It's well done, and if a bit fast and very hard (not least on its most sympathetic characters), still a very fine work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 September 2020

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The Bookshop: Reviews: The Bookshop - the film: Penelope Fitzgerald: Other books by Penelope Fitzgerald under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Penelope Fitzgerald lived 1916 to 2000.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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