The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (4 out of 5)
This charming little story is brought to you by Gabrielle Zevin, author of critically lauded young adult novel ELSEWHERE. Be not fooled, dear reader. This is not her usual fare, this is marketed and shelved in fiction, not young adult. That doesn’t mean it comes with a disclaimer toward one age group over another; it simply means she, like many authors, has crafted a work outside of her normal oeuvre. A number of authors who are known for fiction and mystery have jumped into the young adult/children’s marketplace. Zevin has done the opposite, to great success.
A.J. Fikry is the odd grape in the bunch of people living on small Alice Island. He owns and operates the small, independent local bookstore, Island Books. The first glimpse you get of A.J. is when he meets Amelia, the sales rep from Knightley Books, a small publisher. He does the old open and shut on her and barely gives her a chance to do her job and recommend titles that she enjoyed and that he should sell. He takes her galleys and sends her on her way. A.J.’s already lost a lot of his reason for living, namely his wife and unborn child, who passed away in an automobile accident. A.J. attempts to bury himself and his grief in the job, but his passion, as well as his sales and clientele, are dwindling at an alarming rate. One day he drinks too much, wakes up, and finds his copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s collection Tamerlane is missing. Of course, it’s a collectible, and of course he didn’t insure it. That’s not all. There’s a baby girl with a note attached, leaving her in A.J.’s care. Sounds like nothing you’ve heard before? It isn’t, and yet, it is. A.J. can’t bear to part with her after growing fond of her over the short period of time, and adopts her. Maya changes his life for the better and he starts to care again, not just about his bookstore and life, but those around him who are regular fixtures in his life. Caring for Maya one night while she has chicken pox, he gets around to reading the galley that Amelia left with him all that time ago, and loves it. He immediately contacts her and admits the error of his ways. Amelia begins taking the ferry over to the island more often, in the guise of selling more books, but she finds herself more and more charmed by this lonely, eccentric chameleon who has fallen totally in love with the little girl left in his care by a stranger.
You know where this is heading. That’s the slight problem with Zevin’s cute story. You can see the light in their eyes. You can hear the birds singing so gay. You can hear the chime of the wedding bells that are just fated to happen. It wasn’t a bit surprising that A.J. ends up falling in love with Maya and keeping her to raise on his own. It wasn’t a bit surprising that he ends up falling for Amelia. It wasn’t a bit surprising, a lot of things that happen in this story. That’s the only part of this refreshing, idealistic book that I didn’t enjoy. It was too cute and too predictable. Having said that, though, you save the best for last. The characters are fantastic and definitely as eccentric, or their histories are, as A.J.’s is. David Parish, the brother in law who’s an author with only one truly successful book published, who uses that extensively, usually as a cover for heading to LA, where he meets starlets and cheats on his loyal wife. Ismay, the long suffering wife, who only wants to have children and a happy marriage, and who tries on multiple occasions to save A.J. from himself. Lambiase, the friendly policeman on the island, who tries to be a good friend to A.J., and ultimately, despite not being a reader, takes A.J.’s grudging advice on a book and ends up loving thrillers so much that he forms a (are you ready for this?) policeman’s book club that meets regularly at the store. One of the definite strengths of this book is the character development.
Another strength that is tough to ignore is the character’s (and Zevin’s) love for the bookstore. This entire book is humming with joy of books and bookstores. Part of A.J.’s despair early on in the story revolves around the changing landscape of books and the industry. Meaning online meccas like Amazon taking away the joys of brick and mortar bookstores and ruining what used to be a pleasure that we all took for granted; the ability to find multiple bookstores on every corner. Online retailers have taken that option down to a dwindling number of stores that are still open and that people can walk into, browse, and enjoy. It’s become an industry of people on their computers and mobile devices browsing an online marketplace to find books to purchase and have shipped to them. How, well, mechanical. Much of the passion in this story is about the passion and joy that is the written word, and those who still fight on and go into their daily jobs, determined to find that beating heart of a book to recommend to someone, that joy that comes when someone comes back and says it was the perfect book. A computer generated suggestion engine will never replace the fire in someone’s belly over the perfect book. An online retailer can never compete with human passion, that’s the central message in the book. Message received, loud and clear. It’s a charming read and would definitely be a book to recommend to anyone who wants a light story, full of love, hope, and promise.