Published by Thorndike Press on April 4, 2014
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
Pages: 260 pages
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In the spirit of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Gabrielle Zevin's enchanting novel is a love letter to the world of books - and booksellers - that changes our lives by giving us the stories that open our hearts and enlighten our minds. On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto "No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World." A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means. A. J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island - from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who's always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.'s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly. And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It's a small package, but large in weight. It's that unexpected arrival that gives A.J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn't take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.'s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn't see coming. As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.
The cover of the copy I read (see above) is not really a favourite. I like the iconography and the font, but it seems a little bland to me. I think this cover is actually the American cover, so I’m not sure why my Canadian library has it. However, I LOVE the Canadian cover, and this one which is very similar (I can’t figure out which country it is though… Australia maybe?). I think the Canadian one is a lot prettier and less jumbled.
I had heard a lot of “buzz” about this novel, but all I really knew was that it is being marketed as a book for book lovers. I knew an old guy owned a bookstore in it, but that’s it. When it came in at the library, I picked it up and started reading without even glancing at the jacket copy. I’ll be up front and say I loved this book – and I’m not surprised, given that Gabrielle Zevin also wrote Elsewhere, a book that has stayed with me for many years.
This book is one of those ones that I loved so much, that it becomes difficult to explain. Honestly, I feel that reading this book without knowing a whole lot about it was part of its charm… so, I’m not going to tell you a whole lot about it. The essential premise is revolves around A.J. Fikry, the owner of a bookstore on a small New England island (and he’s middle-aged, not “old”). Garth Stein wrote that “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry reminds us of what saves us all from a life of loneliness and isolation: our sense of empathy; our ability to love and be loved; our willingness to care and be cared for.” That’s basically the fundamental themes of this book, and Zevin explores them so beautifully. A.J. Fikry is a character who I immediately hated, then began to root for… and by the end of the story, I was brokenhearted to see him suffer. This book is definitely character-driven, and if you love the exploration of people and what makes them tick, you will love this book.
At first it seems pretentious. A.J. Fikry is a bit of a literary snob in the opening chapters. As I said, I kind of hated him at first. (Okay, not “kind of”… I really did.) But by the end of the book, all kinds of books are celebrated – from children’s picture books to YA to genre crime fiction. I love how Zevin incorporates so much variety into this book… everything from the types of books sold and read to the cast of characters to the setting are quirky and colourful. Zevin writes setting masterfully; Alice Island Books is another character just as full of life as the living, breathing ones.
One of my favourite back cover blurbs for this book sums up the best parts of it: “This novel has humor, romance, a touch of suspense, but most of all love – love of books and bookish people and, really, all of humanity in its imperfect glory” (Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child). While The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is definitely a book for bookish people – and thus involves a bookstore, several avid readers, and lots and lots of books – there are also other non-bookish things to love: a mystery, a baby, the lives of non-readers. I really enjoyed how this wasn’t just about books… while I love reading and I like reading about books, having such diversity in both characters and plot makes the book come alive.
There was one thing that bugged me about this book, but I have to be vague because it would be a major spoiler otherwise. The ending is… unexpected. At first I was very unhappy with it. I read one review on Chapters that said: “Ending ruins the whole book, waste of time reading it and I would not recommend it to anyone. The story falls apart and is a huge disappointment. Not worth the read at all. Wish I never read it.” While this was strongly worded for even my initial disappointment, after sitting with this book for a few days after reading, the ending is kind of fitting. It’s not a typical happily ever after, but it definitely fits with the themes of the book and Zevin’s message becomes even clearer. So, while it is a hard ending to love, I do think it is the right ending for The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.
Finally, this book left me with a recommendation that I have to mention. In the acknowledgments (which I have taken to reading lately and usually really enjoy), Zevin writes, “Lambiase and the first Ms. Fikry speak variations on the phrase, ‘A town isn’t a town without a bookstore.’ Surely, they both must have read American Gods by Neil Gaiman.’” I love this, because I completely agree with Lambiase and Ms. Fikry. I have never read anything by Neil Gaiman but have been meaning to for so long… have any of you read American Gods? Did you like it?
Ultimately, if you are reading this blog I urge you to read this book – I wish I could buy a copy and push it into your hands myself! It’s a book for any kind of reader that any book lover will be able to love and appreciate.
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Have you read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry? Is it on your TBR list? Have you enjoyed any other of Gabrielle Zevin’s novels? Do you tend to like books about books?