Celebrate humanity, reading and love for books with ‘The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry’

Categories: Book Reviews

April 25, 2014, edition
By Ann Jonas

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” by Gabrielle Zevin. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (April 2014). 260 pp. $24.95

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin is a charming salute to books, bookstores and book lovers. The novel’s jacket cover contains two ponderous quotations about books, to give readers a little foretelling of the nature of the narrative. The inside flap states “We are not quite novels. We are not quite short stories. In the end, we are collected works.” The back cover features the adage “No Man Is an Island: Every Book Is a World” which is part of the sign that hangs above the porch of Island Books, a small bookstore in the fictional resort village of Alice Island, off the coast of Massachusetts and owned by the cantankerous A.J. Fikry.

The novel begins with an encounter between Fikry and Amelia, a publisher sales rep, which goes poorly, due to Fikry’s churlish behavior. Fikry is struggling — his wife has died, book sales have declined and he really doesn’t have a social life. Then, his prized possession and primary retirement asset, “Tamerlane,” a rare collection of poetry by Edgar Allen Poe, is stolen.

The chief of police, Chief Lambiase, a kindly man, gets involved when Fikry reports the robbery. The book, which was valued at $400,000, is not recovered, and Fikry realizes he won’t be retiring anytime soon. He decides he no longer needs to lock the bookstore’s front door — in his belief, now that “Tamerlane” is gone he no longer owns anything worth stealing.

Fikry’s life suddenly changes when a precocious two-year old girl named Maya is abandoned in his bookstore. Soon after, it is determined that Maya’s mother has drowned. Little Maya steals Fikry’s heart and he ends up adopting her. His life is transformed and his bookstore is revitalized, as Chief Lambiase and other members of the community of Alice Island visit the store often to visit Fikry and Maya. Lambiase even takes up reading and leads a book club as a result of his frequent visits to Island Books.

Amelia, an energetic and persistent sales rep, continues to call on Fikry several times a year with book recommendations and eventually their relationship blossoms into romance. As the book progresses, Fikry’s relationships with both Amelia and Maya, along with the citizens of Alice Island, change him from a crotchety widower to a kind, caring soul.

Zevin adds several twists to the story, making it an enjoyable, yet unpredictable read. The main focus of “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is definitely books and the characters’ relationships with them. Throughout the novel, various titles of books are referred to, which adds to the charm of the tale. Each of the 13 chapters begins with a “shelf talker,” a mini-review of a classic novel, including books by Roald Dahl, Mark Twain and Flannery O’Connor. These notes, penned by Fikry, add even more to the “bookish” feel this novel possesses. They give the reader a sense of who Fikry is without long descriptions of his personality and thoughts.

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is a gem. The novel contains some misfortune and sadness, yet it is a delightful and moving story. It has romance, humor, and a bit of mystery. Above all, it is an entertaining celebration of reading and books.