Author Gabrielle Zevin thinks you can tell a lot about a person from what they read, and her newest novel, “The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry,” features that notion. It buzzes with book talk, and the charming characters within are well described by their literary likes and dislikes. This most-highly-rated-ever Indie Next Pick is a love letter to reading and books.
A. J. Fikry is the almost 40-year-old owner of a bookstore on fictitious Alice Island, off the coast of Cape Cod. ISLAND BOOKS is a quaint, overflowing bookshop, the kind someone could get lost in for hours. But it’s heading toward bankruptcy because A. J., the gruff, hermit-like proprietor, seems to care little about his customers. He lives in the attic apartment above the store, alone since his beloved wife, Nic, died in a car crash. Summer tourists and publishers’ sales reps are some of the only people he has contact with. A visit from one of the reps, Amelia, a young, “dirty blonde giantess” from Knightly Press opens the story. She is appalled at A. J.’s rudeness and disdain for most types of books, but readers will immediately suspect that things might change for the two.
Sometime later after showing up each season to promote the new books, Amelia and A. J. have a Skype meeting instead and love is in the air. A. J.’s not sure he wants their developing relationship. “Love, he thinks. What a bother. It’s completely gotten in the way of his plan to drink himself to death, to drive his business to ruin.”
One night a phenomenal gift is left at A. J.’s door. It turns his life around. Time marches ahead quickly, people change and secrets are revealed. Some reviewers term this tale “old-fashioned,” and to me it feels like a fable. Death is a strong presence, but the writing is so light-hearted it feels just sentimental and true to life.
Zevin uses a catchy device to introduce the chapters. Each one begins with a one-page note by A. J. about what he finds interesting in a particular story, called a “shelf talker” in the book business. His messages about these stories (by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain and others) hold his deepest philosophical thoughts. Book clubs could have endless discussions about how each one connects to the chapter it introduces.
“The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry” is a quirky little book that aims right at the heart. I don’t guarantee all joy and bliss, but I highly recommend it for its endearing characters, its humor and its poignant love story.