Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

A.J. Fikry is a book snob curmudgeon, but I adore the story of his life.

He would rather spend time reading than interacting with the customers in his tiny island bookstore. When the book opens, A.J.'s drinking entirely too much after the death of his wife about a year and a half ago. He meets a new book sales representative because the man who sold him books for years has also died. His rude treatment of the new salesperson is inexcusable, but not unexpected.

The one comfort A.J. possesses is an original Tamerlane, a book so rare it's worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. His retirement ticket.

And then Tamerlane is stolen. The same officer who responded to his wife's accident scene arrives at A.J.'s bookstore to begin the investigation that goes no where. The book has vanished, so A.J. must trudge through his existence as the owner of the tiny Island Books selling mostly to vacationing tourists.

Some people criticize the likelihood of numerous events in the book.

Sure, a baby being abandoned in his bookstore with a note for the owner to care for this smart little girl seems like a stretch. And then a mysterious drowned woman washes up on the shores of the island. And somehow the social worker allows A.J. Fikry to continue fostering this baby girl and eventually adopt her.

And there are many more seemingly implausible and convoluted events. But I live in a country that just elected Donald Trump as President, so my perspective on implausible and convoluted has changed.

Let the improbable plot details go. Embrace suspension of disbelief. Just enjoy this fun and fast-paced ride that celebrates publishing, books, and bookish culture.

The supporting characters delight throughout.

My favorite is police Chief Lambiase. He's a good officer and an even better human. When he responds to A.J.'s bookstore about the stolen rare book, A.J. keeps referring to him as Officer Lambiase. In a classy move that I came to expect from Lambiase, he never corrects the bookstore owner. 

He listens to people and understands how to help them. In a move that Lambiase knows will help A.J., he starts a police procedural book club with A.J.'s help that becomes the largest book meetup that Island Books has.

“After many years of hosting the Chief’s Choice Book Club, Lambiase knows that the most important thing, even more than the title at hand, is food and drink.”

The Chief consistently pops up in this story to offer advice, some humorous asides, and his opinion on food. Side note: The Chief enjoys Costco catering. The road he takes to find happiness inspires me; he's been added to my literary heroes list.

As A.J.'s adopted daughter Maya grows up, A.J.'s interactions with her praise the writing process, the reading process, the publishing industry, and book stores. Through A.J. Zevin proclaims various pieces of bookish advice that all readers need to be reminded of from time-to-time.

“But me- also- thinks my latter-day reaction speaks to the necessity of encountering stories at precisely the right time in our lives. Remember, Maya: the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa.”

The idea that sometimes you read a book at the wrong time in your life resonates with me.

As a former English teacher, I remember trying to choose books for my students that would be high interest. Zevin uses Lambiase as a character whose perception of reading was forever negatively changed by the required reading list in school. And A.J., a true book connoisseur, lures Lambiase into reading a variety of mysteries and crime stories.

Readers often get frustrated by the truly terrible books out there. But terrible books exist for a reason.

“Why is any one book different from any other book? They are different, A.J. decides, because they are. We have to look inside many. We have to believe. We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and again.”

And what different readers consider disappointing varies. Not every book is for every person. A.J. Fikry's talent is understanding reader tastes and recommending the perfect next read.

Within the implausible and convoluted events, the concept of ambiguity gets raised repeatedly. Sometimes the characters and events are ambiguous. For instance, the drowned woman found is Maya's mother, but she has no connection to anyone on the island. Why did she choose A.J.'s bookstore to abandon her daughter? Who is she?

Other times the characters discuss ambiguity in literature. Some characters like a cryptic or debatable resolution to a book. Others find these resolutions puzzling to the point of madness.

Luckily, the tangled events in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry do get explained, eventually. Loose plot points get tied. Life is ambiguous, but this book is not. This book very intentionally pays homage to books and bookish people. It also reminds bookish people that they are not islands. We do need human interaction to be whole.

There were times this story had me laughing to the point of snorting. Surprisingly, I shed a few tears only to find myself laughing as I was crying.

If you love books, maybe more than people, and you can roll with unlikely events, you will adore The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. My suggestion is to read this book during a book slump. The pacing is so quick and the story is so charming, book funk extraction is guaranteed.

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