The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

9780395869468_p0_v1_s260x420Discovering Penelope Fitzgerald has given me the same rush as finding Jane Gardam – seasoned English authors do that to me.  In her slim but powerful volume of The Bookshop, Fitzgerald’s cautionary tale reminds us of the smallness of some people and the uncomfortable closeness of small-town living.  Although Fitzgerald first wrote her book in 1978, bookshops are still disappearing and courageous people who dare to challenge, are still are still being thwarted.

Middle-aged widow Florence Green decides to open a bookstore in a small British seaside town.  Since this will be the first bookstore in a town without even a library, her forward-looking venture would seem  heroic.  However, Florence did not count on the town’s self-appointed arts doyenne, Mrs. Gamart, jealous of anyone who would challenge her authority over the town, who suddenly decides that the old, leaky, haunted site of the new bookshop that has been empty for years, should be the town arts center, under her supervision.

With her determination, Florence’s initial success with the bookshop and her customers’ clamour for the new bestseller, Lolita, only raises the ire of fellow shopkeepers who greedily envy her short-lived success and irritates Mrs.Gamart.    Despite the patronage of the town’s old monied recluse, the bookshop falls to Mrs.Gamart’s lobbying for a new bill to take over the “historic” building, leaving Florence with no car, no money, and no books.

Throughout the story, Fitzgerald offers her unique brand of wit through Florence, changing morose actions into satire, sometimes with farcical asides.  It’s easy to laugh at the haughty dames and be wary of the scurrilous BBC announcer.  And, just when it seems Florence will be saved, her hero falls over dead.  Sometimes, the good guys don’t win.

 

Us

9780062365583_p0_v4_s260x420How do you react when you know someone is testing you – try your best to pass the test, or resent the pressure? In David Nicholls “Us,” Douglas Petersen has only the family summer trip to Europe to prove his worth to his wife, who has informed him she is leaving after their son goes off to college in the Fall. Makes you wonder why he would bother – but he does.

“There’s a saying…if you love someone you must set them free. Well, that’s just nonsense. If you love someone, you bind them to you with heavy metal chains.”

The first half of the book follows Douglas, the earnest scientist, and his wife Connie, the free spirit artist, as they try to educate their teenage son in the beauty of European art, as the family starts its ” World Tour.” The squabbles will be familiar to anyone who has tried to raise a teenager and the descriptions of the continental surroundings will bring nostalgia to anyone who has been to Paris and Amsterdam. As the reader gets to know the two principal characters, their extreme differences emerge, and it’s a wonder they have stayed together for twenty-five years.  As well-meaning as Douglas is, his starched attitude toward life is annoying. Of course, organization and sensible living has its virtues, but Douglas seems to have become mired in them, and lost all sense of fun and adventure. On the other hand, the mother/son recklessness counters his rigidness, and you may find yourself rooting for him, while wishing he would acquire more spontaneity.

By the second half of the book, the family journey has dissolved into a mother going home alone, the teenager going off with a newfound girlfriend, and Douglas determinedly pursuing his son across Europe – to find him, to apologize for not defending him in a bar brawl, and to save his family. As the tale follows Douglas through Verona, Venice, Florence, and Sienna, his character changes, morphing from stale rules follower and guidebook reader to a sympathetic version of Charlie Brown – a good guy, despite his quirks.  The epiphany in Barcelona leads to a new understanding among the three characters, but Nicholls adjusts the romantic ending I had hoped for, into a realistic amalgam of trust, love, and self-discovery.

The thoughtful exploration of this marriage, with its familiar rhythms, had me hoping for some compassion for Douglas, who could not help who he is – and Nicholls delivers.  But, whenever I decide to venture on a World Tour, I am bringing this book with me – from London, through Paris and Amsterdam, with train rides across Europe to Italy, and eventually Madrid and Barcelona – Nicholls offers a connection better than any guide book.

 

Penelope Fitzgerald and others

The ubiquitous Gone Girl never seems to go away.  Gillian Flynn and Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild) are paired in an article about books made into movies in this Sunday’s New York Times.  I have yet to read Wild, and may wait for Reese Witherspoon’s version, but I share Bob Odenkirk’s view from his New York Times interview in “By the Book” -

I thought “Gone Girl” pushed the unreliable-narrator gambit past the breaking point. Please don’t hit me with your copy of “Gone Girl.”

Nevertheless, I read the article and admired the two self-posessed American forty-somethings.

Still searching for inspiration, I found Stacy Schiff’s review of Penelope Fitzgerald’s biography – a new book by Hermione Lee.  Schiff, the biographer of Cleopatra (see my review here ), notes the rediscovery of an older woman who had marinated through most of her life, before producing her first novel at age 60 and winning the Man Booker Prize in 1979 when she was 63 (proving it’s never too late).   The Blue Flower, published when Fitzgerald was 78, is called her masterpiece.

9780395859971_p0_v1_s260x420Hermione Lee, Fitzgerald’s biographer, describes The Blue Flower as a “novel about youth, hope, idealism, and the imagination…

The Blue Flower imagines the families, history and ideas of late 18th-century provincial Germany, the period in which the philosopher Novalis (Fritz von Hardenberg) was a young man, just when Romanticism was emerging…a mysterious short book… Fritz’s family life, his work as a tax collector for the salt mines, his philosophical education, the story of the woman who silently loves him, his romantic passion for the naive Sophie, who dies a cruel death, and the landscape of his everyday life…his visionary dream of a blue flower that can never be found haunts the book like a half-remembered tune…

Music is very important to the novel, and it is constructed, boldly, in short scenes, like moments in a dream or songs. The blue flower keeps shifting its meaning. What is its name, Sophie asks him. “He knew it once,” Fritz replies. “He was told the name, but he has forgotten it. He would give his life to remember it”.

Fitzgerald said once that the blue flower is what you want of life. “Even if there’s no possibility of reaching it, you must never give up”.

I am on my way to pick up a copy from the library.  It sounds familiar but I don’t remember reading it.

Have you read it?