The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
It is 1959, and Florence Green is in Hardborough, a small seaside town in England’s East Anglia region, that doesn’t have its own book shop. This is something that Florence wants to fix. The only problem is, there seems to be some opposition to where she’s chosen to open it, the Old House. Although the building has stood empty for quite some time, there are people in town who have other ideas for that property.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see the movie adaptation of this novella, which I found totally charming. Since the generalization is that the book is better than the film, I decided to hunt down a copy of this book and find out for myself if this one obeyed that rule, is one of the few exceptions, or something in between. I have to warn my readers that because of the close proximity between seeing the movie and reading the book, this may end up being a review of both, with some compare and contrast slipped in, for better or worse.
There is a whole lot of good things one can say about this book. First, Fitzgerald’s style is very fluid and smooth, and almost emotionless at times, but just when you thing that the atmosphere is feeling a touch too dry, Fitzgerald brings a little twist in to spice things up a bit, and whet your appetite for more. Fitzgerald also uses her sparse prose deftly to draw her characters with inference rather than lengthy descriptions. I have to say that the actors that appear in the movie fit very well with what Fitzgerald gives us here, and I had no problem with having their faces in my head while I read this book afterwards.
It is important to note that most people would say that this novella isn’t technically historical fiction, because when Fitzgerald wrote this book in 1978, she set it less than 20 years in her own past. However, I still think of this as historical fiction, since the era of this book is over 50 years in the past. It therefore makes sense that the language that Fitzgerald uses here feels very correct for the era, which certainly adds to the atmosphere.
Since this is a relatively short book, it is a touch more skeletal than the movie, as well as concentrating more on Florence than the minor characters, where the movie was able to flesh them out a bit more. I didn’t find this to be a problem at all, and in fact, I felt that the pieces that the movie included that weren’t in the book, were actually good additions that fit well with the overall story. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I the book felt a touch unfinished, or perhaps thinner because those supplemental parts in the film weren’t in the original novella. Even so, I felt that Fitzgerald had a very specific plot that she wanted to take Florence through, and that specificity worked well with both the economy of the prose as well as the narrow number of characters that peopled Fitzgerald’s fictional village. Again, Fitzgerald’s descriptions of this town were very minimalistic, and I felt that I was at an advantage for having seen the film, since that helped me easily able to fill in the blanks from the book.
Overall, I have to say that I found this novella to be a warm, gentle and highly enjoyable read, and I actually believe that the movie version was easily equal to, if not the slightest bit better than the book. Mind you, I’m sure that those who read this book when it was first published (or not long afterwards) might disagree, or even dislike the film, but I gave the movie eight out of 10 stars on IMDb, and I think this book deserves a solid four out of five stars.
“The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald (originally published in 1978) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (free worldwide delivery; promoting literacy and libraries) as well as from an IndieBound store near you. The film adaptation of this book starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson, was released in the UK on June 29, 2018 and in the US on August 24, 2018.