Sunday, March 30, 2014

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

This witty, heartwarming, yet fast-paced tale will appeal to book lovers as it features A.J. Fikry, a curmudgeonly bookstore owner on fictional Alice Island (similar to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard). Fikry is 39 and he’s grieving the death of his wife in an automobile accident. He isolates himself like an island by drinking too much and ignoring his customers.  His only joy comes from gazing at his rare copy of an Edgar Allan Poe poem, Tamarlane. Since so few copies were printed, it’s worth $400,000 but Fikry hasn't insured it. The poem with its themes of pride, independence, and loss fits Fikry’s state of mind. When the poem is stolen, Fikry faces more loss and may be forced into bankruptcy as his lack of attention to the store and his customers have left his bottom line seriously lacking.

Soon an adorable toddler is abandoned in the store with a note:
“This is Maya. She is twenty-five months old. She is VERY SMART, exceptionally verbal for her age, and a sweet, good girl.  I want her to grow up to be a reader.  I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those things. I love her very much but I can no longer take care of her. The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help. I am desperate.  Yours, Maya’s mother.”

Fikry takes Maya to the police station where Chief Lambiase explains that with the snow and it being a Friday night with a diminished ferry schedule that no one from the Department of Children and Family Services would come for Maya until at least Monday so Fikry takes her back to his home above the store and by Monday she’s wormed her way into his cold, hard heart and he soon adopts her. Business picks up as islanders visit to see the child and offer advice on her care.  Fikry adds new children’s books and the women who visit form a book club. The absolute delight of this novel is the many wonderful books it introduces. Each chapter opens with the title of a short story or book and Fikry’s depiction of why he loves it that then introduces characters by what they read. 

Chief Lambiase visits the store often to check on Maya but to justify those visits he buys books and since he’s frugal, he reads them.  He starts with mass market paperbacks by James Patterson then Fikry directs him to Jo Nesbo, Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley, Cormac McCarthy and eventually to Kate Atkinson. Lambiase loves talking about the books so he starts a book club for law enforcement officers. Touches like Lambiase's book club and the ways people connect through books make this a sure bet for avid readers. 

Fikry's new life means that he abandons his old lifestyle in which he claims that he’s not an alcoholic, “but I do like to drink until I pass out at least once a week. I smoke occasionally and subsist on a diet of frozen entrees. I rarely floss.”  He then realizes that “the most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything.”

A novel highlighting a man reentering life needs a love interest and the charming Amelia Loman, a publisher’s rep for a small press, is his and she and Fikry slowly fall in love and the book begins to wend its way toward “happily ever after.” Complications ensue though in this always entertaining novel that’s sure to find its way to beaches everywhere this summer. Comparisons to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society with its cast of lovable eccentrics are inevitable and apt as book-loving readers will immerse themselves in the lives of these bookish islanders.

Summing it Up:  Readers will flock to this page-turning look at literature and love.  Zevin’s dry humor and absolute love of the literary rescue The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry from being a Nicholas Sparks-like snorer. Instead, it’s a delectable dessert of a romance that even men (especially men who love books) can enjoy. Primarily though, this will be the book every woman you know reads this summer. 

Footnote: As this is one of the big books of the spring, with everyone wanting copies for Mother's Day, the author may be coming to a town near you. Grab an autographed copy for your mother or yourself at one of her appearances. This captivating novel is an homage to independent bookstores so, if possible, buy your copy at a real bricks-and-mortar bookstore where you can share your love of books with real people.  

Rating:  5 stars   

Category: Dessert, Fiction, Five Stars, Book Club

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