When I was growing up, I always dreamed of owning a little bookstore. The idea of spreading the joy of reading to others while having access to all the latest bestsellers was the ultimate fantasy. Although this dream never turned into reality, I’ve always loved reading fiction about bookstores. This particular little novel by Penelope Fitzgerald has been sitting on my shelves for quite some time. While not what I expected at all, I still liked it enough that I would be willing to read more from this Booker Prize-winning writer.
The book takes place in 1959 in a coastal town called Hardborough. Florence Green, a middle-aged widow with a kind heart and a love of books, decides to open a bookshop. The town hasn’t had one in many years, and Florence’s attempts to start her business are met with all manner of problems. For starters, the building is severely dilapidated with leaks and is always damp. There’s also talk of a poltergeist haunting the place. More importantly, Florence becomes an enemy of the powerful Mrs. Gamart, who has ideas of her own to use the building as a cultural arts center. Harborough is definitely worthy of its name as Florence realizes the bookshop may never gain full acceptance in this parochial town.
I thought this book would be endearing and funny, but appearances can often be misleading. There is a significant amount of humor beneath the surface but the overall feel is more a melancholy one right up to the end. Florence is immediately viewed by the town as an outsider, made clear from the party she attends prior to opening her bookshop. Mrs. Gamart schemes to have the building taken away from her, and the one person who could sway the town in Florence’s favor ultimately fails. Several attempts are made to make the business a success, such as starting a lending library and stocking the shelves with a new controversial novel called Lolita. However, none of these tactics appear to work. Fitzgerald does bring subtle humor into the novel with characters that often seem like modern Dickensian creations. As a fan of subtle humor and of quiet British stories, I enjoyed this immensely. The polar opposite feelings I experienced in this book of humor to downright tragedy left me with mixed feelings at the end.
It left me questioning what the moral of the story actually was. The best I could come up with is that we should pursue our dreams no matter what the majority says. Fitzgerald is no stranger to being an outsider. She didn’t start publishing until she was nearly 60 years old! Although this book was shortlisted but failed to win the Booker, Fitzgerald achieves it with her next novel which brought a lot of controversy into itself. This is a writer who dedicated her works to champion the underdog. Penelope Fitzgerald is an inspiration that it’s never too late to chase your dreams. Perhaps the success is simply the act of trying.