I picked this book up on a whim; it was one of several available at a good sale price from the place I usually buy e-books, and knowing nothing more about it than that it was titled The Bookshop, I followed my usual rule of thumb — if the title references a bookshop or a library, I’ll read it — and bought it for something like $1.99.
Even after reading the blurb, I was surprised by this book. For one thing, I thought it was a recent release. It’s not: it’s a 1978 novel that’s recently been made into a movie (hence the movie tie-in cover pictured here). I thought it would be a fairly light piece of fluff: it was, in fact, short-listed for the Booker Prize. And while it is, ostensibly, about a bookshop, it’s really about other things (well, that part it has in common with most ostensibly bookshop-related books).
It’s 1959, and in the small English town of Hardborough, middle-aged widow Florence Green opens a bookshop, despite the lack of interest of most of her neighbours and the open hostility of the local society matron, who wants Florence’s bookshop property for the arts centre she dreams of opening. Aided only by a fiercely opinionated ten-year-old assistant, Florence perseveres against the mounting odds.
In the sort of book I was expecting when I picked it up, Florence’s bookshop would eventually prevail and the matron would get her come-uppance. The ten-year-old girl from the impoverished family would be inspired by her association with the bookstore to reach for bigger and better things in life. And one of the unlikely, crusty old bachelors in town would prove an unexpected love interest for Florence. (One feels this would be especially likely to be the case when one learns that the movie adaptation stars Bill Nighy).
But none of these things happen. Instead, The Bookshop is an intensely detailed, witty but also dark, exploration of a small town and its highly class-bound, prejudiced, provincial society. The book is not particularly plot-driven, but what plot there is does not tend towards wish-fulfillment. Rather, the fate of Florence’s bookstore is harshly realistic, and many questions are left unanswered at the end of the novel. There is no heartwarming ending or midlife romance. Instead, there’s just life, as awkward and inconvenient and unsatisfying as it often is. It’s observed here with humour, with generosity, but entirely without sentimentality.
Also, there’s a poltergeist. I almost forgot about that.