LitStack Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

by Sharon Browning
The Storied Life of A.J. FikryStoried Life of AJ Fikry
Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin Books
First Edition:  April 1, 2014
ISBN 978-1-61620-321-4

What a lovely gem of a book!

A.J. Fikry is a recently widowed fellow who owns a struggling bookstore on tiny Alice Island, Massachusetts.  He’s only in his mid-thirties, but seems older due to a somewhat cantankerous manner and a fair bit of literary snobbery.  Although intelligent and witty, he’s not a very social creature, leaving that aspect of his life to be managed by his wife, who was beautiful and lively and gracious.  When she dies in a car accident, A.J. almost embraces the way his life folds in on itself, growing smaller and more isolated even as his wine consumption increases.

“My wife and I,” A.J. replied without thinking.  “Oh, Christ, I just did that stupid thing where the character forgets that the spouse has died and he accidentally uses ‘we’.  That’s such a cliché.  Officer” – he paused to read the cop’s badge – “Lambiase, you and I are characters in a bad novel.  Do you know that?  How the heck did we end up here?  You’re probably thinking to yourself, Poor bastard, and tonight you’ll hug your kids extra tight because that’s what characters in these kinds of novels do.  You know the kind of book I’m talking about, right?  The kind of hotshot literary fiction that, like, follows some unimportant supporting character for a bit so it looks all Faulkneresque and expansive.  Look how the author cares for the little people!  The common man!  How broad-minded her or she must be!  Even your name.  Officer Lambiase is the perfect name for a clichéd Massachusetts cop.  Are you racist, Lambiase?  because your kind of character ought to be racist.”

The bookstore has always lost money, but now it is in its least profitable year ever.  To top it off, the one thing of value that A.J. owns and the thing that was supposed to ensure that the bookstore would not be an encumbrance – a rare edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane – has been stolen, which he takes as permission to become even more apathetic towards his life.

Then one day a toddler is left at the bookstore; two-year old Maya, complete with diaper bag and note (“I love her very much but I can no longer take care of her.”); she has been left where she can be around books, and around people who love books.  At first A.J. balks at the idea of being responsible for a child – something he knows nothing about – but as he waits for a case worker from the Department of Children and Families to arrive, he and the precocious Maya begin to bond (“I warned her about giving love that hasn’t yet been earned, but honestly, I think it’s the influence of that insidious Elmo.  He loves everyone, you know?”), and he ends up keeping her.

What could otherwise be a trite and predictable story about an unattached man whose life is redeemed by the sudden addition of an innocent child is given a fresh treatment by author Gabrielle Zevin, who already has seven other novels under her belt, including Margarettown and the acclaimed young adult story Elsewhere.  So much of what she writes in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – her characters, the depiction of life in an isolated town, the background workings of a bookstore and publishing sales reps – rings genuine.  It almost seems like she is observing real life characters rather than creating them.  The people who populate this book are remarkable in how ordinary they are – and yet they are engaging, funny, loveable people.  Her female characters are not beautiful or stylish or extraordinary, but they are real and all the more remarkable for being so.  Her men are not stereotypes, their strengths and flaws are the ones that we recognize in ourselves, in our spouses, in our friends and families.  These are not the “quirky” characters that stick out, that are expected in typical literary fare; they ring true without all but the slightest whiff of cynicism.

For a book that is about opening up your heart, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is refreshingly sparse in sentimentality and schmaltz.  I was continually surprised and pleased at how effortlessly Ms. Zevin’s narrative flows, at how deftly she choreographs events, introduces elements and drives forward her action without it feeling forced or contrived.  This story could easily get mired in melodrama, but there is no need for tissues in the reading of this book – and it is all the much better for that.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a quick, easy read, not because it is simple for it is not; it deals with a lot of complex, deep, difficult issues.  But it’s a quick, easy read because it unfolds simply, directly, with humor and candor; not sparse but clear, with surprises that come from the vagaries of life rather the from convoluted plots and manipulated dramas.  And along the way, there are lots of sweet, simple, lovely moments – just like life.  Your life, my life.  Ordinary, everyday, wonderful lives.

Indeed, a true delight.

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