Summary: Florence Green, whom life seems to have passed by, dares to open a bookshop in The Old House in a seaside village in East Anglia. She takes on the polite but ruthless local opposition, the disintegrating old house and the supernatural in her endeavour. However, 1959 is not a kind year to widows opening small businesses.
First off, the writing is beautiful. Fitzgerald cultivates a small but clever cast of personalities, with a gentle gradation of character development. To quote the TLS from the back cover: "Fitzgerald's resources of odd people are impressively rich".
At 153 pages, this is definitely one of the shortest books I have read since I graduated from the Famous Five and Secret Seven. However, I'm not sure that added length would add anything to the novel, as we focus only on Florence's time in the village. In a larger work covering all of Florence's life, her time in the village would probably occupy this many pages, so in a sense it's not small at all, just precisely focussed.
There's not much of a plot but that is a pleasant change for me, given that I usually read very plot-driven novels (e.g. Clive Cussler). We pass ten years in Florence's company (almost exclusively), in a succession of episodes and moments which introduce us to some strange people with peculiar motivations. Some of them threaten to descend to farce (particularly the old man who keels over dead in the market square), but poor Florence remains fixed solidly in realism throughout.
One character who is exquisitely captured is young Christine. The ten-year-old bookshop assistant is proud and proper but smacks a customer over the hand with a ruler. She confides in Florence and listens to her, but runs off in a huff when her schooling takes an unfortunate twist. Like Marcus in About A Boy and Alan Bradley's spectacular efforts with Flavia (here and here), Christine is a beautiful child who springs off the page into the reader's heart.
The villagers are an odd mob and are strangely set against Florence – whether this is due to the interference of the village's most prominent member of society is not quite clear, which adds to the charm; the reader cannot be sure of the minor characters' motivations. I'm still confused by Milo North. The poltergeist embodies the village spirit, in that he is loudest and most disruptive when Florence is successful. I was apprehensive about the introduction of the poltergeist, but it was neatly done. Fitzgerald has a gentle touch with irony, and it lightens the sombre mood regularly.
I had some questions which were not answered (the circumstances of her being widowed, what her connection to the village is or why she moved there), and they are not answered precisely because the focus is only on her time in the village. However, the answers aren't important.
"She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation."
"She had been trusted, and that was not an everyday experience in Hardborough"
"Her disappointment, however, endeared her to the shopkeepers of Hardborough. They had all known better, and could have told her so."
"Gentleness is not kindness. His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage"
"Lord Gosfield was touched, though he had said nothing all evening, and had in fact driven the hundred odd miles expressly to say nothing in the company of his old friend Bruno"
I would definitely be interested in reading more FitzGerald after this, and I hope someone decides to make a film out of this – I can just see Jennifer Ehle, Helen Blaxendale or even Helena Bonham-Carter bustling about a little bookshop with the grey East Anglian sea in the background…