THE BOOKSHOP by Penelope Fitzgerald (First published 1978)
It is set in the fictitious English seaside town of Hardborough, East Anglia in 1959. The slim plot follows the fortunes of a kind-hearted widow Florence Green who hates being idle and decides that “courage and endurance are useless if they are never tested”.
She makes the bold decision to open a bookshop in a badly maintained and possibly haunted old house. In this way she becomes a “business woman in middle life”.
Things never go smoothly. She faces some spiteful opposition from the uncultured locals and stocking Nabokov’s Lolita causes controversy in the small-minded conservative community. She takes on a ten-year assistant who subsequently leaves to focus on her school work.
If this synopsis makes the novella sound dull, it’s because it is! The problem is that nothing of note really happens and I find little of interest in any of the characters.
It was nominated for the Booker Prize and I can only think 1978 must have been a very lean year. Fitzgerald actually won the following year for Offshore which I sincerely hope is better.
At the end, Florence belatedly realises “the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop”. If only this had been clearer from the start I could have saved myself the trouble of reading it.