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Thursday, November 26, 2015

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

I read this book back in March of 2014; I'm posting my review because this is one of the books that appears on the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award longlist.  I gave it 4 Stars.

This is a book for bibliophiles; it is an affirmation of the love of books and reading. The protagonist is A. J. Fikry, the eccentric, curmudgeonly owner of a “persnickety little bookstore” on Alice Island, a ferry trip from Massachusetts. His wife recently died and he isolates himself, taking solace in alcohol. His life changes with the arrival of two females: Maya, an infant left in his shop, and Amelia, a publisher’s sales representative.

Each chapter begins with a note about a short story, a note written by A.J. Each one gives a glimpse into the heart of A.J.: “My life is in these books . . . Read these and know my heart.” In many ways, the book is really about the influence of books, booksellers and bookstores on people’s lives: “People are attached to their bookstores . . . It matters who placed A Wrinkle in Time in your twelve-year-old daughter’s nail-bitten fingers or who sold you that Let’s Go travel guide to Hawaii or who insisted that your aunt with the very particular tastes would surely adore Cloud Atlas.”

The plot is simple and sometimes sad and sentimental, but the book is much more than its plot; it is an examination of life (“We are not quite novels. . . . We are not quite short stories. . . . In the end, we are collected works”) and the role of reading: “We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone.” Even books that are unsatisfactory serve a purpose: “We have to look inside many. We have to believe. We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and again.” One of A.J.’s life lessons is an indirect allusion to E.M. Forster’s Howards End: “this is what the point of it all is. To connect . . . Only connect.” Not all of the observations of life are literary in nature, however: “She was pretty and smart, which makes her death a tragedy. She was poor and black, which means people say they saw it coming.”

The touches of humour are wonderful. Sometimes knowledge of literature is needed to appreciate the humour: “’The Fall of the House of Usher’ is a pretty good primer on what not to do with children.” At other times, a simple description is comic: “Though it’s just a gymnasium (the scent of balls of both varieties is still palpable) . . .” One episode is hilarious. An irate 82-year-old customer returns The Book Thief with its spine broken; she wants a refund: “’Yes, I read it. . . . I most certainly did read it. It kept me up all night, I was so angry with it. At this stage of my life, I would rather not be kept up all night. Nor do I wish to have my tears jerked at the rate at which this novel jerked them. The next time you recommend a book to me, I hope you’ll keep that in mind, Mr. Fikry.’”

This is a gentle yet intelligent read. In its literary focus, it is reminiscent of 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff and The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. In its enchanting tone, it is reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Unlike the unhappy customer in A.J.’s bookstore, readers of this novel will not be returning it for a refund; they will want to keep it in order to re-read it.