I feel like Gabrielle Zevin wrote this wonderful book, about a lonely New England bookstore owner who adopts a little girl and falls in love with life, just for me. And maybe just for you too. If one of the first things you do with a new book is pick it up and press its open pages to your face and inhale. Ahh. That smell - the heady (in a literal sense) aroma of a book, of a small neighborhood bookstore, the paper, the ink, the glue - is nearly as important to me as the story within those pages. There is nothing like it, an integral part of the whole reading enchilada. And so right from the get go I knew I was going to like The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. As much as anything it is a paean to the physical book.
Chapter one, page one begins with a brief note written by A.J.. It is his thoughts on a famous Roald Dahl short story about a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks it and serves the roasted murder weapon to the investigating police officers. This short story is one of my favorites. I am immediately baited. What does this have to do with this book? I have to read on.
A.J. is widowed but didn't kill his late wife. She died in a car accident. He's thirty-nine and lives in a tiny apartment over Island Books on a small island off Hyannis, Massachusetts. In his words, "I'm not what you'd call an alcoholic, but I do like to drink until I pass out at least once a week. I smoke occasionally and I subsist on a diet of frozen entrees. I rarely floss. I used to be a long-distance runner, but now I don't exercise at all. I live alone and lack meaningful personal relationships. Since my wife died, I hate my work, too."
Fikry prefers short stories to novels and dislikes children's and young adult books, thus they occupy the smallest section in the bookshop. A.J. is such a slave to the status quo that when Amelia Loman calls on him and explains that she is replacing the old (now deceased) publishing house sales representative, he is peeved - at her. And rude. And self-absorbed. Yet I like him, why? Because he is also smart and sensitive and self-aware, and he loves books. And when Maya, a two-year-old tot, is abandoned to him in his bookstore he is immediately smitten.
Maya quickly takes to him, calling him daddy within hours after they meet. The note attached to her is addressed to A.J. specifically, and so his sense of obligation is further heightened. Of course he compensates his toddler-care-and-feeding knowledge deficiency by consulting Internet search engines. How does a father go about [bathing] a two-year-old girl's private parts without being a pervert?; How high to fill the tub?; How to prevent a two-year-old from accidentally drowning in tub; General rules for bath safety, and so on. "Google" is one of Maya's first words.
Turns out that Maya's biological mother came to a tragic end. So A.J. in whose trust she wisely gave the child - legally adopts her. And when little Maya Fikry is decked in a fine party dress for her "not-christening" party, A.J. "feels a vaguely familiar, slightly bubbling feeling inside of him. He wants to laugh out loud or punch a wall. He feels drunk or at least carbonated." But really, "The most annoying thing about [loving Maya] is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything." And so Maya and Amelia (yes, there is a love story too) totally disrupt his "plan to drink himself to death."
Zevin has written a near-perfect novel. Punctuated by explicit references to classic short stories, implicit literary references, self-deprecating swipes at literary snobs (Is a twist less satisfying if you know it's coming? Is a twist that you can't predict symptomatic of bad construction?) and book club discussions, with humor and flawless characterization, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry fills all the bills in straightforward, no-frills prose.
This review was originally published in April 2014, and has been updated for the December 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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