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Old 01-02-2020, 08:26 AM   #1
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January 2020 Discussion • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald



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"The Bookshop catches Fitzgerald coming into top form" said Peter Wolfe in Understanding Penelope Fitzgerald (2004). Wolfe held the book to be a fully realized work of fiction that confirms the author's hold on actuality and the cogency of her satire.

In a 2010 introduction Frank Kermode noted that the novel won Fitzgerald "the respectful attention of reviewers and the admiration of a larger public".

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Old 01-15-2020, 12:13 AM   #2
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It's time to discuss The Bookshop. What did we think about it?
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Old 01-15-2020, 02:35 AM   #3
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My word for this book: Disappointing.

I had quite high hopes but the book fell rather flat. For a story about a bookshop it struck me as very strange that no one in the story actually seemed to like books. (Well, perhaps Mr Brundish did, but we don't see much of him and Florence didn't know that until after she opened her shop.)

I thought the characters had some potential, but they all ended up falling flat too. I didn't end up feeling the affection I thought I would, so that the ending felt like a minor disappointment rather than the tragedy it should have been.

Several times while reading this it felt to me like I was reading someone's outline for the story, as if the expositions were just place holders for scenes yet to be written. Scenes that may, we imagine hopefully, have had us feel something for the characters, or that may have breathed some life to the Suffolk setting.

One the plus side: It was short.
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Old 01-15-2020, 07:16 AM   #4
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I did wonder while I was reading it, how other members of the club would react to it. I enjoyed it very much. In many ways it seems a slight book - it's short, and not much happens in it.

Its delicacy reminded me of a spider web, and of course Violet Gamart was the spider lurking. Florence Green became the hapless fly caught in the Gamart web of intrigue and manipulation.

I enjoyed the descriptions of the countryside and of the people and animals which had learned to live with the ever-encroaching sea. I noted particularly the many references to birds throughout the book, something we also found in Malamud's The Natural.

It was the first book I have read by Penelope Fitzgerald, and it certainly left me wanting to read more by her.
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Old 01-15-2020, 07:57 AM   #5
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I had quite high hopes but the book fell rather flat. For a story about a bookshop it struck me as very strange that no one in the story actually seemed to like books.
I agree that no one seemed to like books, but I thought that was telling. It was one of Florence's own failings; she wouldn't treat books as a commodity, nor was she able or willing to provide a curated selection of books both good and or appeal. It was telling that her root stock were shop worn books from another failed store, and one that had been successful in its day.

Quote:
Several times while reading this it felt to me like I was reading someone's outline for the story, as if the expositions were just place holders for scenes yet to be written. Scenes that may, we imagine hopefully, have had us feel something for the characters, or that may have breathed some life to the Suffolk setting.
I thought the economy of its prose was stunning. So many pithy and evocative sentences and characterizations! I could have bookmarked virtually every page.

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I did wonder while I was reading it, how other members of the club would react to it. I enjoyed it very much. In many ways it seems a slight book - it's short, and not much happens in it.

Its delicacy reminded me of a spider web, and of course Violet Gamart was the spider lurking. Florence Green became the hapless fly caught in the Gamart web of intrigue and manipulation.
Yes, I liked it for the same reason. I like your imagery. However, I think Florence also was the agent of her own failing in many respects. The banker wasn't entirely wrong; the bookshop was a high concept for her, not a nuts and bolts business.

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It was the first book I have read by Penelope Fitzgerald, and it certainly left me wanting to read more by her.
I've read a couple of her other novels; what I'd forgotten until I read the introduction is that she was a member of the famous Knox family (daughter/niece) and that she wrote a very interesting biography of them I enjoyed as well. Much there for various interests - literary, cryptographical, religious!
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Old 01-15-2020, 08:25 AM   #6
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Quote:
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[...] I thought the economy of its prose was stunning. So many pithy and evocative sentences and characterizations! I could have bookmarked virtually every page.[...]
My edition had a preface by Hermione Lee that I rather liked, plus it had an introduction by David Nicholls that I very much didn't like. (Watch me prove that I've read the book by all the quotes and spoilers I can include.)

Anyway, that introduction did have me expect the sparse prose and evocative characterisations - and I agree about both. But I also observed that little of the story happened as I was reading it, instead, significant parts were told to me as having happened. And many of the characterisations had similar problems: clever language, yes, but distant or impersonal, often about people that aren't actually present in the story at that point. That remoteness kept the otherwise promising characters distant, and stopped me from feeling any vested interest in the outcome. Florence may have shed a tear as she left, but I did not.

Perhaps the author wanted the reader to remain aloof? If so, why?
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Old 01-15-2020, 11:25 AM   #7
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I'm just finishing up the book (sorry, got caught by an unexpected request for a beta read from a favourite author just as I was settling down to The Bookshop), but having seen the movie, I'm curious what folks thought of it compared to the book, and how close the two are. (Basically, my DW and I will watch anything with Bill Nighy in it.)
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Old 01-15-2020, 02:32 PM   #8
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Quote:
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Perhaps the author wanted the reader to remain aloof? If so, why?
We agree that the style was affectless, but not the result. I was left with a sense of mostly repressed characters who had been ground down by life and circumstances. The rapper was the physical manifestation of all that repression.

The exceptions were Violet and Milo, and Christine for a while. It seems deliberate that she's different, still her own personality with agency, because she's not got her period yet. Poor thing, even her mother abandoned all hope for her once she was condemned to the technical school.

But in contrast to the flat style, there were also moments of sheer absurdity to point it up. The description of Hardborough's being essentially impossible to reach as access became more and more difficult showed how cut off most the residents were physically as well as emotionally. And the scene where Florence is hanging onto the gelding's tongue - we could have a field day with the symbolism of that. There was a lot of high humor mixed in.
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Old 01-15-2020, 05:26 PM   #9
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I thought one of the main themes of the book was loneliness, epitomised by the way in which Hardborough had gradually become more isolated, as issybird mentioned above. It is now recognised as a debilitating condition, but back when the book was written, that probably wasn’t the case.

At the same time, there were a number of very funny scenes. I was in fits of laughter over Christine’s turn as Salome in the school’s Christmas play. Wouldn’t you have loved to see that?
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Old 01-15-2020, 06:11 PM   #10
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At the same time, there were a number of very funny scenes. I was in fits of laughter over Christine’s turn as Salome in the school’s Christmas play. Wouldn’t you have loved to see that?
Christine was wonderful. How about her costume contrived from the advertising paraphernalia? One of the few off-notes for me in the book was the obvious implication that she would change, would flatten, once the menarche hit. Oh, the cardigan that buttoned all the way up, alas! A very obvious reference to how her personality also buttoned up.
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Old 01-15-2020, 08:17 PM   #11
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I agree completely about Christine -- both the costume, and Salome. Plus her complete idiosyncratic shelving system! But when she doesn't get into grammar school, that felt like the beginning of the decline and fall.

Ultimately, I found this a depressing book, even while I enjoyed the reading of it.
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Old 01-15-2020, 08:22 PM   #12
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Christine was so vibrant, and it was sad to think that she might be moulded by the expectations of others, including her mother. To be condemned to the technical high school rather than the grammar school with its opportunities for meeting and marrying someone middle class - as if that was all there was ahead of her. But of course back in 1959, that was what life was supposedly all about for girls.

Meanwhile I noted this passage about her self-assigned tasks in the shop:

Quote:
Christine liked to do the locking up. At the age of ten and a half she knew, for perhaps the last time in her life, exactly how everything should be done.
It made me smile at her current self-confidence, while feeling sad about her impending self-doubt as she matured.
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Old 01-15-2020, 08:51 PM   #13
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I resonate with everything that’s been said. I enjoyed the book a great deal, (if not the story ). I really enjoyed Fitzgerald’s writing; a beautiful voice!

On one hand, it was very spare, and yet all the settings were vivid and evocative. You could feel the unrelenting wind, smell the must in the old buildings and hear the empty footsteps in Mr. Brundish’s front hall.

It’s true that the characters weren’t fleshed out, but I thought the ‘inner moments’ she caught, and the exchanges between people, were quite powerful. There is a feeling of remoteness, but I think it’s intentional.

Though Florence is quite admirable, we watch her make serious mistakes, and recognize Violet and her ilk. So there are no surprises. Since I knew what was going to unfold, for me the book evoked feelings of decline, futility and loss. I think Bookpossum is spot on, from the vantage of loneliness, it’s very well done. Maybe it’s just my age showing, but I also felt the themes of aging & decline quite strongly too.

That said, I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s sense of humour and felt it rescued the book from being mired down. There’s a lot of resistance and resilience in the face of fate.

PS
I enjoyed Christine too, but I don’t feel so pessimistic for her. I think Fitzgerald would have her lose, like everyone loses in the end, but show the same pluckiness as the landscape and people around her.

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Old 01-15-2020, 08:58 PM   #14
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Yes, I agree Victoria - the sense of aging and decline were very strong, starting of course with Mr Brundish, with the way the Old House was gradually falling to pieces, the abandoned estate falling into the sea, and the increasing irrelevance of the town itself.

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Old 01-15-2020, 09:09 PM   #15
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Yes, wasn’t the tumbled estate a striking image? As depressing as it was, it was also neat that the villagers would go sit on the orphaned front steps to pass the time. In their own way, they were quite defiant in the face of inevitability.
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