Two reviews

First of all — yay for President Barack Obama!  I watched the inauguration at school with a crowd of faculty and students, and it was exciting.  It’s amazing how much optimism I see and feel out there, and it’s wonderful to have something to feel hopeful about and proud of.  I thought his speech was great.  I was also immensely cheered to read this article from the New York Times about how important books and reading have been for Obama.  There is a lot I don’t know about Obama, but that article makes me feel like he’s someone whose mindset I can understand, unlike a certain former president of ours (it was such a relief to hear the words “former president George W. Bush”!).

But on to books.  I thought I would write briefly about two books today, in an effort not to fall too far behind in my reviews.  Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and E.F. Benson’s Queen Lucia are two very different books — one of them is quiet and serious and dark and the other is bright and comic — but they have a surprising amount in common.  They are both set in small, isolated towns in England where tradition reigns and newcomers are held in suspicion, and they deal with how tight-knit communities define and redefine themselves when change threatens them.  They also have similar types of characters — in particular, the gossip mongers and the matrons who pride themselves on supporting the arts.

But their differences in tone are striking.  Fitzgerald’s book tells the story of Florence Green, a widow with enough money, although barely, to buy a bookshop.  Her town has never had a bookshop and seems like the perfect place for one, given its distance from other town centers and its summer tourists.  Florence has settled on Old House, a building in need of repairs but with some promise, as the perfect place for her shop, but, unfortunately, Mrs. Gamart, the town’s most powerful woman, has had other ideas about how Old House should be used.  She wants to see it as an arts center, and she has ideas about who should run it and how.  But Florence takes her chances and bucks Mrs. Gamart’s wishes, and her bookshop opens.

The book is only about 120 pages long, and it’s tightly focused on Florence and her bookshop’s fortunes.  I’ll admit I found the tone of it a little uneven and I had trouble orienting myself in the story, but I’m not sure I was reading the book under the best circumstances and may not have done it justice.  I’m planning on reading Fitzgerald again to see if I can do better with another novel.  Eventually, though, the story clicked with me, and I was thoroughly involved in it when I got to the ending — which I won’t say anything about except that it’s incredibly powerful.

I’m wondering if this is a book someone English might be better suited to understand.  It took me a while to figure out just how to understand the characters, just what to make of the glimmers of humor that appear in an otherwise somber book, and I wonder if there isn’t something about the tone and mood that could be hard for an American to pick up on.  I’m not sure.  I’ve got Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, which I’m looking forward to reading.

As for Queen Lucia, the book was also very English, but in such an over-the-top way that anybody who knows anything about the English and stereotypes of the English will find it amusing.  Queen Lucia, otherwise known as Mrs. Lucas, reigns supreme in her little town, dictating the artistic sensibilities and the social calendar of anybody who has pretensions of being anybody.  She plays piano, puts on tableaux, talks Italian with her husband, and is so very proud of her performance in all these things.  Her admirers, most importantly her two best friends Daisy Quantock and Georgie Pillson, glimpse now and then the fact that Queen Lucia is not quite as talented as she likes to think she is, but they are still reasonably happy to live in her shadow.

Until, that is, a guru shows up in town ready to teach them all yoga and universal benevolence, followed by a spiritualist ready to perform seances and communicate with the dead, followed, most devastatingly, by Olga Bracely, the famous opera singer.  With each of these intruders a fight breaks out over who will “own” them — who will get credit for introducing them to their small town and who will take charge of their social calendar, dictating who can see them and when.  Benson has a wonderful time delicately skewering all the characters with his light, satiric tone — and the characters really do do some ridiculous things, especially Queen Lucia — but it’s clear that he’s also fond of each of them, and no one is seriously hurt by the satire.  It’s just a lot of fun for everyone involved.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction, Life

12 responses to “Two reviews

  1. I read my first Penelope Fitzgerald (Offshore) this year as well and my reaction was similar to yours. It took me a while to get into it, but at about the halfway point I became totally engrossed and the ending—wow!—the ending just blew me away. Maybe it just takes a while to get used to her voice, and if that’s the case, I wonder if it becomes easier as you read more of her books.

  2. musingsfromthesofa

    Maybe I will try the Penelope Fitzgerald and let you know if being English helps.
    So glad you enjoyed E F Benson. Very light, but much fun.

  3. I haven’t read anything by Penelope Fitzgerald, but I read Queen Lucia late last year after hearing it raved about for years from people whose taste I trust. I thought it okay–maybe I expected too much–but I found myself getting bored towards the end and then I found myself skimming (horrors!). And, the babytalk drove me up the wall, but then someone told me that that was an accurate affectation from the time. I did record part of Miss Mapp for a LibriVox recording, and enjoyed reading it aloud very much, but I think I can only take Benson in small doses. Fitzgerald does sound intriguing though.

  4. The Bookshop sounds my type of book. Maybe I’ll try it too. I’ve never been attracted to E F Benson’s books – I think the sterotypes put me off – but this one does sound interesting.

  5. I’ve read both of these and enjoyed them in their different ways very much. The Fitzgerald I read years and years ago, though, so I have to say I don’t recall it terribly well. Far be it from me to know where cultural difference lies, but both novels are about tiny detail. It’s the affectations and the little snide asides and the delicate points of oneupmanship that drive the Benson novels, and Fitzgerald’s earlier novels dig deep into quiet lives to find significance in what might seem trivial. So I could see how, on a bad day, both might have an inconsequential air about them.

  6. adevotedreader

    I was a little disappointed by The Bookshop after hearing Penelope Fitzgerald so widely praised. I enjoyed it but when I finished it I wasn’t sure what to think or feel about it or what the point was. I think it was too gentle for me, I prefer someone in a similar but sharper vein eg Muriel Spark.

    The Mapp and Lucia books sounds like great fun, so I must get to them soon.

  7. I watched some of the Mapp & Lucia British television series, but would like to try the books for comparison.

  8. I have books by both authors waiting to be read. There has been a lot of discussion of the Lucia books in an online group I belong to, and they seem to be universally enjoyed by the members, so I really do want to give them a try. I’m really curious about Penelope Fitzgerald–haven’t you read her before (or am I confusing her with another Penelope?). All her books look short, but I bet that’s misleading–short isn’t always easy. I wonder if they are all so serious in tone.

  9. I’ve already put Queen Lucia on my wishlist. It sounds like fun — I love those little English village characters. A friend introduced me to Flora Klickman’s books which are somewhat similar, but do not contain quite as much satire from what I can tell. There isn’t a plot so much as an ongoing description of the various escapades the eccentric villagers have. Miss Read is similar too.

  10. Both these books sound great in their own way. And you are so generous when describing the Fitzgerald book and how it took you a little bit to get into it. Far from squashing my interest in it, I think you have made me even m ore curious.

  11. I loved The Bookshop but then I read another book by her, I’m blanking on the title right now, and had a really hard time with it. Still, she’s definitely an author I hope to revisit again. I also have The Blue Flower in my stacks too!

  12. Teresa — it will certainly be interesting to see if reading more of her books makes her easier to understand and enjoy. I also wonder if the book’s shortness was a problem — I didn’t have enough time to orient myself to the story and her voice.

    Musings — it would be perfect if you tried Fitzgerald, a nice little experiment. You could read The Bookshop in an hour or two — it’s so short.

    JaneGS — I can see that Benson is best in small doses; I enjoyed the book but I wouldn’t want to read his books back to back. I haven’t read a book with Mapp in it — perhaps I’ll try one of those next.

    BooksPlease — it would be great if you tried The Bookshop — I could have two English opinions! It is my kind of book too, which is why I was surprised to run into some trouble — and why I want to read more of her work.

    Litlove — I like books that are about the importance of details — books that are about real life as most of us experience it, where the details make all the difference. Benson’s use of detail I found very funny, and I can see how Fitzgerald’s use would be interesting if I didn’t struggle with other aspects of the book. She definitely deserves another try.

    Adevotedreader — definitely Fitzgerald is a “gentle” read and I can see why she might seem inconsequential, as Litlove put it. I like that type of book, but I also really love Murial Spark

    Jenclair — I’m certain those books would make for a great television series!

    Danielle — I haven’t read her before; you might be thinking of Penelope Lively, whom I read a year or two ago. All the Fitzgerald books I’ve seen are short, and you’re right — short doesn’t mean easy.

    Debby — I really think you’ll enjoy the Lucia books. Thanks for mentioning the other ones — I’ll have to check them out. I enjoy the satire, but I could definitely enjoy something a little less sharp-edged too.

    Stefanie — sometimes I just don’t like a book, but sometimes I can see that even though I struggled with it, others might like it. Actually, I feel this way about Winterson too. I don’t like her particularly, but I can easily see why other people do.

    Iliana — interesting that your experience with Fitzgerald is mixed — it makes me think mine could easily be mixed as well. Which means I might very well like the next book of hers I read!

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