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The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted

May 20, 2019

Having read about The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman, at Whispering Gums and Rhapsody In Books, when I came across it at the public library I checked it out. It’s not a bad story, but it contains a few elements that I found irritating. One is the way a fictional Auschwitz story is used to create narrative conflict, and the other is the negative attitude towards public libraries.

We are switched back and forth between chapters from the 1960’s, about Tom Hope, whose wife has left him with a young son on a farm in Australia, and  seven chapters set in the 1940’s, starting with Hannah Babel’s arrival in Auschwitz with her husband and her young son. After Tom’s wife takes his son away to live with her in a “Jesus Camp” on Phillips Island, Tom and Hannah meet, fall in love, and get married.

The 1940’s chapters are interspersed with the main story of Tom and Hannah in the 1960’s so that readers can know details that the two lovers do not discuss. I found this a cheap way to develop Hannah’s character. When the conflict arises—that Tom’s son finds his way back to the farm—we’re supposed to have sympathy for Hannah because we know her history. It doesn’t work, though—she leaves Tom, gets a job teaching music to children and sits on the steps of rented houses drinking gin and tonic in the evening. Finally she returns, to live with Tom and his son.

Hannah calls her bookstore “The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted,” a name only she knows, since the sign over the door says “Hannah’s Bookshop.” As readers, we’re meant to be charmed by the descriptions of the shop, but I was not:
“The town had a library until recently, financed offhandedly by the shire, so people knew what to expect when stacks of books were packed together on shelves; but the library had closed after the flooding, and had never had the luster of Hannah’s shop…all the books went to the tip, and Ern Murdoch, the librarian, aged and frail in a gray cardigan, retired to be cared for at a home in the city, as he might have done ten years earlier. Even when there’d been books, it was nothing like the number kept by Hannah.”
Learning that the people of this town had thrown their library books away and that there hadn’t been that many in the first place didn’t create the intended literary mystique for Hannah’s bookstore, at least in my mind.

I also wonder why this novel is set in the 1960’s. Is it so we can continue to fight the genre wars of last century? Here is one of Hannah’s musings about the books she sells:
“Nina and her bosom in Kisses for Breakfast, her pancake brain smothered in sugar and clotted cream, was the cousin of Dorothea Brooke—you would admit it, if you were not such a snob.”

Maybe the Auschwitz chapters are meant to work as shorthand for tragedy, kind of like saying to readers of this novel “remember the movie Sophie’s Choice? Hannah was in that kind of terrible situation once.” I think they end up trivializing the tragedy, though, kind of like the idea Hannah’s second husband had about how “Auschwitz could be turned into an amusement park. Lemonade would fall from the showerheads. Cakes would be baked in the ovens.”

But The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted ends with a child being saved, and even for Hannah “the grief of Poland coiled itself in corners, banished for the moment by books and beeswax.” It’s a nice little story even though it’s too slight to bear the weight of all the history Hillman has tried to include.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2019 3:25 pm

    The lemonade and cake reference is awful! Alice

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • May 20, 2019 4:18 pm

      To be fair, the idea is presented as a “terrible idea,” one that only a terribly damaged person would have.

  2. May 20, 2019 5:57 pm

    I know the dual timeline thing is popular right now but it has to be done very well for me to enjoy it. I think I might skip this book.

    • May 20, 2019 7:45 pm

      It’s one thing when the chapters alternate, but another when one timeline is ascendant and the other used sparingly as background, which is how this novel is structured. It came out lopsided.
      Probably just as well to skip it, although it does come out all right in the end.

  3. May 20, 2019 6:37 pm

    Thanks for the link. Good review Jeanne. I’ve never read Hillman, and I don’t imagine I ever will. I like your ques tion about why set this book in the 1960s. It’s a question always worth asking.

    And, as a librarian, I take offence at the description of the library, librarians – not to mention the dig at book “snobs”.

    • May 20, 2019 7:50 pm

      I’m not even a librarian, but I thought it was odd how the bookshop was described so lovingly and the library as if it’s an outmoded idea.
      Many of the people I’ve met who think that reading the classics is “snobby” have had the kind of middle school or high school teachers who want their students to guess at an interpretation they consider to be the “right” one.

      • May 21, 2019 6:17 pm

        I had never thought about what makes people think reading the classics is snobby. If that’s a main reason, that’s very sad.

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