The Bookshop

I snatched The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald from the top of the heap this morning thinking sure, I'll read a nice little tale about a nice little widow who opens a book shop in a nice little village, and quaint little things will go awry, and easy misunderstandings will be sorted out in funny little ways, and maybe there'll be a romance with the neighborhood butcher, and won't that be a lovely way to start the new year, to be hopeful and reassured of the rightness of the world, and as I read I even jotted down little notes like "The way a community cares for itself, with everyone contributing a talent," leaving out only the smiley faces in the margin, and it wasn't until around Chapter 7 that I realized I was being sucker punched in the gut.

Have you seen the movie Jean de Florette? Because I watched Jean de Florette right after I finished this, and they are telling essentially the same story: the systematic destruction of an inconvenient dream and/or dreamer by parties with more knowledge, more power, more time, more history, more money, more allies, and more influence. Which is to say REAL LIFE in all capital letters and all its indifference.

In JdF, the hunchback from the city (Gérard Depardieu) moves to the country, wild with hope and modern ideas, only to find himself thwarted at every turn by what he calls "fate" and "water" but we call Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil, two provincial farmers who plug up his spring because they want to grow carnations on his land. Carnations! What could be more harmless? (This movie is French, by the way.)

Anyhow: books! that's what. In TBS, poor Florence Green, lonely and bored, wants to bring books to a small isolated community on the North Sea, and sets up shop in an old abandoned building that the local arts maven has had her eye on for a cultural center. (Red flag #1, gleaned on the mean streets of the Upper West Side: beware local arts mavens, they are all kneecappers.) Despite the odds and contrary to all sorts of menacing signals, things fall into place with relative ease, there's peace and calm across the land, and then—WHAMMO!—you start to see a pattern in the way words like "power" and "force" and "survival" keep popping up, and the way coincidences keep piling on, and the way Florence is warned over and over again, by both townspeople and poltergeists, that she's overstepped the limits of her own courage. (Red flag #2: when the poltergeists call, you should probably listen.) It's not a ghost story, though, but something much scarier, because it's the same faith she places in the kindness of strangers that eats her up in the end—and poor Florence Green has no nubile young goatherding daughter played by Emmanuelle Béart to make things right in a sequel, either.

Actually, what you see here—in both JdF and TBS—is how deeply people can dig into their landscape (both physical and mental) and how much deeper they'll dig to defend it. And in such cases we'd all do well to heed a simple lesson from Into the Woods, when Little Red Riding Hood concludes, after saving Granny and vanquishing the Big Bad Wolf, that "nice is different than good."

Um, happy 2010.