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.