Discovering Penelope Fitzgerald has given me the same rush as finding Jane Gardam – seasoned English authors do that to me. In her slim but powerful volume of The Bookshop, Fitzgerald’s cautionary tale reminds us of the smallness of some people and the uncomfortable closeness of small-town living. Although Fitzgerald first wrote her book in 1978, bookshops are still disappearing and courageous people who dare to challenge, are still are still being thwarted.
Middle-aged widow Florence Green decides to open a bookstore in a small British seaside town. Since this will be the first bookstore in a town without even a library, her forward-looking venture would seem heroic. However, Florence did not count on the town’s self-appointed arts doyenne, Mrs. Gamart, jealous of anyone who would challenge her authority over the town, who suddenly decides that the old, leaky, haunted site of the new bookshop that has been empty for years, should be the town arts center, under her supervision.
With her determination, Florence’s initial success with the bookshop and her customers’ clamour for the new bestseller, Lolita, only raises the ire of fellow shopkeepers who greedily envy her short-lived success and irritates Mrs.Gamart. Despite the patronage of the town’s old monied recluse, the bookshop falls to Mrs.Gamart’s lobbying for a new bill to take over the “historic” building, leaving Florence with no car, no money, and no books.
Throughout the story, Fitzgerald offers her unique brand of wit through Florence, changing morose actions into satire, sometimes with farcical asides. It’s easy to laugh at the haughty dames and be wary of the scurrilous BBC announcer. And, just when it seems Florence will be saved, her hero falls over dead. Sometimes, the good guys don’t win.