Dear THE BOOKSHOP by Penelope Fitzgerald: You are a bittersweet circle

I bought my copy of you mainly because (a) it was on sale (b) it had a pretty cover, and (c) I can’t resist a book about books. I distinctly remember starting you while sitting on park near my new apartment in the town where I attended law school. It was a beautiful late August day and, much like Florence Green in this novel, I felt very alone. I was living in a new town and hadn’t started school yet, so I didn’t know a soul there. Every day I would venture to the park in the afternoons to walk around, admire the cute dogs being walked, and listen to some audiobooks. This time I decided to bring a physical book, and I sat down on the bench for a while and just read.

Fast forward over three months, and I still hadn’t finished reading you. Instead, you sat on my nightstand as I read textbooks and briefed cases and made new friends and stressed and cried and laughed. Every once in a while I looked over at you and remembered Florence Green and her bookshop in a little town that didn’t want it. Finally, when final exams were done and I had returned home for the holidays, I curled up in my bed on Christmas Eve and finished reading you. It felt like I had come full circle, not only in terms of reading you after an entire semester had passed, but also in the way you end: nearly in the same way you began, still bittersweet and languid and beautiful.

Some people prefer books with action-packed plots, or at least plots where many definitive events occur. I have never been one of those people, and luckily for me, you are not one of those books. You are character-driven and meandering in your narrative arc, telling of Florence’s days in the bookshop and the challenges she faces in a small town that doesn’t quite want a bookshop. However, this slow pace doesn’t apply to the feelings you evoke. All in the span of your 156 pages I felt hope, sadness, sympathy, empathy, nostalgia, frustration, and loss. I must admit that you were sadder than I expected–I was deceived by your cover’s bright colors and cute design–but it was a peaceful kind of sad, the sort of bittersweet wistfulness that comes with old age or change or time passing. 

But you never stopped being beautiful. And you are oh-so wise. I dog-eared many of your pages (apologies for that) hoping to return to some of your well-written wisdom in the future. You reminded me that “Gentleness is not kindness” and that “The frame of mind, however, is everything.” (22, 45). And then there is my favorite quote of all:

A good book is the precious life-blood of a masterspirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity. (108).

I love how you knowingly play with the minds of book lovers, well aware that readers like me likely fall into that camp. I wanted to have some angry words with Mrs. Gamart, a woman who does everything she can to take the bookshop down volume by volume. A bookworm cannot fathom how a town like Hardborough would not want a cute and cozy bookshop like Florence’s, yet that is the fact we must come to accept by the time we flip your last page. It feels as though Florence has lost a friend, and in some way we have lost a little hope that things will work out as they should. You remind us that the world can be cruel and harsh and unforgiving, even when we try our best to make it not so. 

Strangely, despite your sad ending, you were actually reassuring. So often we read books with clear plots, answered questions, and happy endings, and it can be tempting to think that life should be or is like that too. Sometimes when life gives us lemons it’s impossible to make lemonade on the first, second, or even third try. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. And sometimes, we have to be okay with the fact you just can’t make lemonade from those lemons.

Okay, enough about lemonade. All I’m trying to say is that I really enjoyed reading you, The Bookshop. I may even read you again someday. Until next time, then.

Yours,

HOLLY

9 Replies to “Dear THE BOOKSHOP by Penelope Fitzgerald: You are a bittersweet circle”

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