The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel
Gabrielle Zevin (Twitter) (Facebook)
Algonquin Books (April 2014), Hardcover (ISBN 1616203218 / 9781616203214)
Fiction, 272 pages
Source: Purchased e-book (iBooks)
Gabrielle Zevin is better known as a YA author, but her novel for adults, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, has been getting a lot of attention from the Book People since its publication in the spring. It’s understandable. Book People are often drawn to stories about Book People, and a novel about the owner of a small independent bookstore, a publisher’s sales rep, and what’s found in the wake of the loss of a rare and valuable book of poems wasn’t likely to escape their notice. It didn’t escape mine, although it was the attention more than the story itself that spurred me to read it.
I know many readers who have been thoroughly charmed by this novel. It’s understandable. But I have to confess that although I found The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry pleasant enough reading, its charms didn’t seem to work on me.
That said, there are passages in the novel that, as a Book Person, I quite appreciated, including this one that could sum up my overall response to it:
“Who are these people who think a book comes with a guarantee that they will like it?”
Others reminded me of conversations and correspondence with other Book People:
“They had only ever discussed books but what, in this life, is more personal than books?”
“You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question, What is your favorite book?”
“(T)he only thing worse than a world with big chain bookstores was a world with NO big chain bookstores.”
“A place is not really a place without a bookstore.”
My point is that I get the Book People appeal. My regret is that I didn’t find enough other appealing elements in The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Perhaps I misinterpreted the title, which had me expecting more direct, deeper connections to be made between familiar literature and the lives of Zevin’s characters. I’m pretty sure I expected more depth and insight, period.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry could be a fine choice for a Book Person’s summer-reading list. It’s quick, it’s light, and offers many enjoyable tidbits for those who love the reading life, but I don’t feel that it adds up to much more than the tidbits, and I was hoping for a little more substance.
A.J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died; his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history; and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island—from Chief Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward him; from Ismay, his sister-in-law, who is hell-bent on saving A.J. from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who persists in taking the ferry to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, he can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.
And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It’s a small package, though large in weight—an unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J., for the determined sales rep Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light, for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.’s world. Or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming.
“On the ferry from Hyannis to Alice Island, Amelia Loman paints her nails yellow and, while waiting for them to dry, skims her predecessor’s notes. ‘Island Books, approximately $350,000.00 per annum in sales, the better portion of that in the summer months to folks on holiday,’ Harvey Rhodes reports. ‘Six hundred square feet of selling space. No full-time employees other than owner. Very small children’s section. Fledgling online presence. Poor community outreach. Inventory emphasizes the literary, which is good for us, but Fikry’s tastes are very specific, and without Nic, he can’t be counted on to hand-sell. Luckily for him, Island’s the only game in town.’”