Friday, December 26, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (2014)

A.J. Fikry is a widowed bookstore owner on the fictional Alice Island in Massachusetts. He's still fairly young when the story opens, but already a curmudgeon. He has little joy in his solitary life, his only real comfort his favorite books, including a rare copy of Edgar Allen Poe's Tamerlane. One morning after drinking himself into a stupor alone the night before, he wakes to find that not only has someone apparently broken in and cleaned his apartment, they've also made off with his valuable beloved book. The book that was supposed to pay for his retirement. Soon after, however, something is unexpectedly left for him and at this very low time in his life it may be just the thing to finally turn him around and give new meaning to his life.

I picked this up on sort of a whim after hearing of it over and over all year long. It was the top Library Reads pick for April and it also appeared on some "best of 2014" lists recently. My need for hoarding books for the holiday weeks coincided perfectly with the availability of the paperback at my library.

Fikry is just the sort of character that I like. He's anti-social and a bit cranky and likes books more than people. When a sales rep he's known for years and considers a friend dies, he reflects, "They had only ever discussed books but what, in this life, is more personal than books?" I cannot agree more with this sentiment. Although he runs a bookstore, he's not a particularly shrewd businessman, insisting on keeping things the way he thinks they should be, rather than making adjustments in ways that might actually be profitable. The rest of Alice Island is just as quirky as he is, and I liked getting to know the other characters as well, such as Officer Lambiase, a cop who develops a love for crime novels, and Fikry's sister-in-law Ismay, whose personal life could easily merit its own novel. Equally as entertaining was Amelia, the visiting sales rep from Knightly Publishing, who could be counted on to journey to the inconvenient island regularly to promote her wares to the stand-offish but strangely appealing bookseller.

What makes this book irresistible for a book lover like me are all the literary references peppered throughout it. Each chapter begins with the title and author of a short story and a note from Fikry about it. (The purpose of all this becomes clear late in the novel.) Of course Tamerlane is an important plot element, but Fikry also talks books with everyone so we hear his thoughts on everything from Holocaust fiction to the crime novels of Jo Nesbo. He calls Infinite Jest "an endurance contest. You manage to get through it and you have no choice but to say you like it." (Validating my disinterest in ever reading that novel.) At one point he lists several titles in a row that were read by a book group and I was ridiculously pleased that I have read all of them. Yes, this is a book for book nerds!

The story does tend a bit toward the sentimental, though it never quite crosses that line. A lot of things start happening later on that kind of seem a bit much for such a short novel, but I found it all actually quite fun to read, even though it got a bit dark and sad. But the point of the novel is how A.J. Fikry is pulled out of his widowhood depression and begins to live again, a trajectory best summed up by what I think may be my favorite quote in this book full of good quotes:

"Fucking 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. The most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to give a shit about everything."

Only a little over 250 pages, the novel reads like young adult and I easily raced through it in two evenings. It's maybe not the sort of story that will stick with me for long (though only time will really tell) but I found it charming and funny. I'd recommend it to book lovers, as well as anyone who likes to read stories set in quirky little towns.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm trying this commenting thing again to see if it will work!

I'm glad you enjoyed this little book - I totally agreed. It could have been a really saccharine and sentimental tale but AJ's cantankerous nature and the flawed humans in his life always seemed to pull it back from the brink!