The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin, 2014; 272 pp
Reviewed by Megan Turner
“He is not a writer, but he has thoughts about the profession, and he wants to tell her those things. Maya, novels certainly do have their charms, but the most elegant creation in the prose universe is a short story. Master the short story and you’ll have mastered the world, he thinks just before he drifts off to sleep. I should write this down, he thinks. He reaches for a pen, but there isn’t one anywhere near the toilet bowl he is resting against.”
Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is the sort of novel that warms one’s heart. It is a love note to the book world. One might find it impossible to enjoy this novel, for example, if one has never heard of Flannery O’Connor.
The novel centers on A.J. Fikry, a not very old yet still crotchety owner of the small bookstore, Island Books. He lives on Alice Island, a fictional town located somewhere off the coast of New England and only accessible by ferry. At the start of the novel, A.J. is in a state of despair, his wife having recently died in a car accident. He drinks himself to sleep each night and has a long list of books he does not like (For example, “I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, move tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying—vampires”). Despite all this, A.J.’s life changes when he adopts a baby named Maya, who is serendipitously left in his bookstore by a desperate teenage mother.
As the novel continues, A.J.’s life improves dramatically. As Maya’s father, he is able to redeem himself to both the town’s residents and a sales rep from Knightley Press whom he later ends up marrying.
The novel has a short story feel, each chapter a new episode in A.J.’s life. Some readers may consider this a flaw, but I believe this is what makes the book so lovely. Each section begins with a small note from A.J. on a specific author and title (For example, “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl and “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” by Raymond Carver). These are notes to readers and later his daughter. Although they may seem insignificant, they are life instructions. For example, in his note regarding “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” A.J. writes: “People tell boring lies about politics, God, and love. You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question, What is your favorite book?”
Zevin is an experienced writer with many YA and several adult fiction titles under her belt. Although I haven’t read all these, I suspect this novel is one of her best (or a least near the top of the list). It is a novel that thanks readers, booksellers, writers and those involved in the book industry for their often thankless work. The book world should thank Zevin too, for she has given them a novel worth selling.