David's Reviews > The Bookshop

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
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Aug 22, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: read-in-2010, unexpectedly-terrific
Read from August 22 to 24, 2010

If you asked me to choose a writer particularly skilled at illustrating the latent nastiness that lurks in small provincial towns, my first choice would probably be a French author -- either Balzac or de Maupassant. The cruelties and resentments of village life are recurrent themes in their work -- a good illustration is one of de Maupassant's earliest and best-known stories, Boule de Suife , which paints a devastating picture of the meanness and nastiness that characterizes the behavior of the powerful towards those they perceive as being lower in the social pecking order. It's not a particularly uplifting view of human behavior, but de Maupassant is so convincing that you don't doubt him for an instant.

I haven't read any other fiction by Penelope Fitzgerald, but "The Bookshop", a novel of only 120 pages (but of staggering brilliance), immediately places her in the same league as de Maupassant. Which is to say, way up there. It's astonishingly good. (Why am I only now discovering this author?)

So I face the reviewer's problem of being reduced to babbling incoherence by a book that I really, really loved. (Ideally, I'd have this problem more often). Efforts to isolate the exact locus of its brilliance have a way of foundering in the overworked cliches of reviewerspeak. What the heck - why don't you just mix and match at will from this partial list:

# terrific, idiosyncratic characters, in particular
# Florence, the totally kick-ass heroine, who is pitted against
# some totally hissable villains - the kind it's fun to hate
# a story that pulls you in - Fitzgerald grabs your attention and never lets go (now, a hyper-critical reviewer might point out that having your story be about a plucky widow who tries to improve life in her town by opening a bookshop amounts to stacking the deck - c'mon, admit it, who didn't love 84 Charing Cross Road growing up - but there will be none of that niggling hypercriticality in this review)
# originality - this is not a book that fulfils one's cosy expectations (it's no 84 Charing Cross Road, refer to the first paragraph above re pettiness and meanness of village life)
# excellent writing - specifically, Fitzgerald's uncanny ability to create vivid characters, situations, and a sense of place with amazing economy
# etc, etc, etc

Oh, what the heck, all I really need to say is that I strongly encourage you to read the book yourself, if you haven't already done so.

I'm heading off to track down some more of Penelope Fitzgerald's books.
Between this and the even more awesome "Winesburg, Ohio", this was a weekend in which it was good to be a reader!

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message 1: by Toni (new) - added it

Toni Now you've done it. Your descriptions have forced, just "forced" me to read this book. I am thankful.


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