“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books, 258 pages, $24.95)
Since the advent of Internet sales and e-books, the independent bookstore has taken on an increasingly mythic symbolism: not quite a church, but far more than just a retail establishment. Serious readers are fierce about browsing, being able to see and hold and smell books, and getting recommendations from someone they know and who knows them. And despite what current media may have you believing, independent bookstores aren’t dead or dying.
A mom-and-pop bookstore on a remote New England island is the setting of “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.” When the book opens, the “pop” has lost his “mom” and doesn’t yet have the title of father. A.J. Fikry is a cranky, opinionated bookseller grieving over the death of his wife and slowing killing himself with alcohol. He is horribly rude to a new publisher’s rep who visits the store one day. He is not a very good salesman. He knows exactly what he likes in books and is happy to enumerate the types of books he doesn’t like to anyone who asks. I can’t say I agree with all of his tastes, but I appreciate the fact that he has read enough and thinks enough about books – and cares enough about books – to have such a specific list. He’s prickly and eccentric but is, at heart, a good person.
Perhaps that’s why a desperate young mother leaves her toddler in the store with a note for A.J. to look after the child, saying, “I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things.”
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Perhaps that’s why he adopts the girl.
And perhaps that’s why the publisher’s rep doesn’t drop his account.
Changes come to A.J. Fikry’s life, whether he’s ready for them or not. Most are good, some are not, but that’s what makes a book interesting. Zevin does a good job of moving the story – the life of A.J. Fikry – forward without getting sentimental: She stops at just the right point and then jumps ahead. The writing is matter of fact when it needs to be, light or deep or funny at other times.
And the author never loses sight of the books at the heart of A.J.’s life – and the lives of the people who care about those kinds of things (the supporting characters are just as interesting in their own ways). Each chapter opens with a note from A.J. about a particular work of literature, with his thoughts and commentary.
The story of A.J. Fikry’s life includes the joys and heartbreaks that happen in most of our lives and the books that make our lives richer. Anyone who loves books, bookstores and the world that reading opens up will love this book.