I think I was being mocked. Gabrielle Zevin author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry was actually making fun of me and my passions. Perhaps she was lambasting herself as well. While the average person will enjoy this novel (one might even refer to it as a longish novella or a novelette), it is only the true bibliophile who will really “get” it. Librarians, book shop owners and workers, book club members, avid readers are all included in the mix. If you know your literature, you’ll get a kick out of all the “title” dropping that occurs. Even the chapters are proceeded by a mini review of various short stories recommended by A. J., the main character.
Fikry is a carmudgeon at the age of thirty nine. Even before his beloved wife died in a car accident, he was the anti-social sort who immerses himself into literature. Not any old books, but ones which he considers true literature, within the confines of his narrow vision of what comprises the components of a good book. When our heroine, Amy, appears at the beginning of this story (and we don’t see her again until much later in the novel), she is a newly minted Book Rep visiting each of the book shops in her region to entice the owners into ordering the current seasonal offerings of her client, Knightly Press. After A. J. is rude to her, an exasperated Amy asks him to share what kind of book he likes. He responds that it’s easier to list what he doesn’t like and we are given a litany of book types, including “genre mash-ups” and “gimmicks of any kind”. Whether we agree with his reasoning or not, the reader must respect Fikry’s knowledge about the sorts of books currently being offered to the reading community.
Forward to a drunken A. J. who doesn’t feel he has much to live for. He passes out with a copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane for company and when he wakes up, this rare manuscript is missing. With the loss of this book comes the loss of his future. Now he can’t retire but must carry on at his little island bookshop with a home above the store. Upon the recommendation of his doctor, Fikry takes up running but leaves the door unlocked since there is nothing left of value to steal. Little does he realize that something more precious than a $400,000 book is left behind which changes his life for the better.
Within the guidelines of the tale are the hidden gems. Zevin doesn’t treat her readers like imbeciles. Just as you think that she’s an expert on “show, don’t tell”, AJ exclaims that “Novels are all tell. The best ones at least. Novels aren’t meant to be imitation screen plays.” When you wonder about the awkwardness of a story told in third person present tense, one of the characters refers to such a narrative as childish. At a book club meeting, we are told that the most important aspect of the event is the food and drink (a necessary component of any book discussion).
Every feature within the book has a purpose which is not revealed until the proper moment. AJ clearly states he believes in narrative constructions, but in the author notes Gabrielle readily admits that this isn’t true in real life where coincidences regularly occur and questions go unanswered, also reminding us that The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a novel. Within the plot, there were some predictable events, a few surprises, and numerous clever quotes to go along with the witty dialogue. Amy recalls the little details of her past, such as how her mom would regularly mail her a new package of underwear so that she never had to actually purchase any for herself until after her mother’s death. She finally realizes that despite their stormy relationship, “nobody will ever love me that much again”.
Is this a perfect book, by no means. (Please note that the following paragraph contains some spoilers) There are several upsettling events and a few characters who were less than stellar. One also wonders if the author planned to kill off the main character from the beginning or was it an after thought to tie up loose ends? Maya was a little too precocious as a child and a little too obnoxious as a teen. And while AJ was angry about his mom’s Christmas gift, that didn’t excuse his rude behavior. His tantrum detracted from the happiness of the better life he had attained and made me wonder about other possible unpleasant behind-the-scenes family events.
My take away consists of two quotes:
We are not quite novels. We are not quite short stories. In the end we are collected works.
There ain’t nobody in the world like book people.
I couldn’t agree more. Four stars.