I read The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald for my book club and I have to admit I expected it to be chick lit. It shows how little I knew about Fitzgerald, who I now know is an English Booker Prize-winning novelist, poet, essayist and biographer.
There are so many books out at the moment set in book shops, cafes, shops, that I assumed it was one of those and I was quite happy to read something a little lighter after finishing American Gods and Anatomy of a Soldier in previous months.
I didn't know what to expect and I was in for a story with a vastly shifting tone. It started with a little old lady, Florence Green, taking on the world and I really admired her passion and refusal to be cowed by her neighbours and the nasty Lady of the Manor.
The middle of the novel was my favourite, really laugh out loud funny with brilliant insights into life in a small village. I grew up in a village where anyone who hadn't been there for fifty years was an incomer, so this felt very familiar and Fitzgerald's portrayal of the array of characters you meet was cleverly perceived. I particularly enjoyed Florence's unlikely and often comical friendships.
But the rapper/ghost? Where did that come from? I thought it was a ploy to get Florence out of her shop, I did not expect a supernatural element to the story.
Maybe because I have my own dream of success that I felt so deeply for Florence. I wanted her to do well, to beat the odds, to get her happily ever after. Half way through the book I completely believed it was possible.
Things deteriorated rapidly and my heart broke as her life fell apart. The last line is maybe one of the saddest I've ever read. I won't share it as it gives the whole plot away but even now I feel really sad when I remember it.
By the end I was definitely in need of cake. Florence visited an old recluse and he gave her tea and fruit cake, so it was the perfect excuse to try out a recipe for Christmas.
I decided to try a Chocolate Cherry Christmas Cake from Good Housekeeping since I love chocolate, cherries and cake. The recipe makes a very dark, rich fruit cake, moist and quite decadent but unfortunately I didn't enjoy it as much as I expected to. I prefer lighter Christmas cakes in general, so I'm possibly not the most impartial of judges. I couldn't really taste the chocolate as it blended in but the sharp sour cherries provided a really nice tang. There's lots of fruit (cherries, of course!) and it was delicious with a slice of Wensleydale cheese - my Yorkshire roots showing.
On the upside it's a gluten free cake and as with so many recipes now you wouldn't know it. If you're looking for a good gluten free, rich Christmas Cake I'd definitely recommend it.
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I've finished my first novel while enjoying copious amounts of chocolate and cake.