Rediscover: The Bookshop

English author Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) didn't begin her writing career until age 58, when she published a biography of 19th-century painter Edward Burne-Jones. Her life to that point was one of promise turned to hardship. Her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, put his legal studies on hold to fight in North Africa during World War II. He returned with a Military Cross and alcoholism. The Fitzgeralds briefly co-edited a literary magazine called the World Review before Desmond was disbarred for forging checks and cashing them at pubs. The family, now with children, faced poverty, homelessness, many years in public housing, and even lived on a houseboat that sank twice. Penelope worked various jobs to keep them afloat, mostly as a teacher, though briefly as a bookseller. She published her first novel in 1977, a comic mystery about the 1972 King Tut exhibit at the British Museum called The Golden Child. Penelope initially wrote it to comfort her terminally ill husband, who died in 1976.

Fitzgerald's other works of fiction were loosely autobiographical. Offshore (1979), winner of the Booker Prize, follows several houseboat residents living on the Thames. Human Voices (1979) looks at wartime life at the BBC, where Fitzgerald worked during World War II, and At Freddie's (1982) takes place in a drama school. The Bookshop (1978), shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is set in 1959 in a fictional coastal town where middle-aged widow Florence Green opens a bookstore. Florence revitalizes an historic, though run down property and runs her store successfully for a year, until business and political problems threaten the shop. For more information on the upcoming film adaptation (and other insights), see Robert Gray's recent column. The Bookshop was last published by Mariner Books in 2015 ($14.95, 9780544484092). --Tobias Mutter

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