by Penelope Fitzgerald
London: Flamingo, 1989.
I have to begin by saying that I can’t think of how to write about this book without spoilers. The ending weighs so heavily on me. What a delightfully acerbic and dark read this is. Dark because the forces of evil, in the guise of a woman named Violet, seem to prevail. Delightful because the world of books, fictional and real, has booksellers like Florence Green, who buys hundreds of silk bookmarks because they are beautiful and hundreds of copies of Lolita because, after taking advice, is assured that regardless of how much money it will make, it is a book worth reading.
Widow Florence Green decides to open a bookshop and buys a haunted, crumbling building in which to sell her wares. She is all determination and forthrightness. She is a little unsure of her business decisions, but under the influence of her astonishingly capable 10-year-old shop assistant Christine, Florence hardens a bit. She is wonderful. Her nemesis, Violet, decides after Florence has bought the Old House that she wants it for a community arts centre, and schemes and plots to get Florence evicted. Fitzgerald is remarkably deft in her depiction of the stubbornly stupid bureaucrat, the despotic small-town matriarch. Her dialogue is crisp and witty. Her prose is just opaque enough to make you work at filling in a scene, just light enough to make you squint a bit to sort impressions into shape.
Courage is Florence’s primary virtue, and as a book lover it takes some courage to read this book. Spoiler alert! The book ends with Florence defeated, “her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.” Oh, Florence, no! That’s not it! That’s not it at all! The good news is that the Violets of this world will always be skewered by capable pens. The narrator and we know what poor Florence does not, that Violet schemed mercilessly to ruin her, and there will have to be satisfaction in that knowledge.