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

This book was okay.

That’s exactly what my dad always refers to as “damned with faint praise” but I can’t muster up much more enthusiasm about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Viking, 2014). I wish I could because I know a few people who read this novel and enjoyed it immensely. I simply don’t find myself in their ranks.

The novel is short – an easy weekend read. My guess is those who love it the most will be book lovers who have spent time working in bookstores or publishing houses. Though, obviously, that doesn’t guarantee anything. For a short novel, The Storied Life spans many years in its characters lives. We open with the first meeting between Amelia Loman, sales rep for Knightley Press (she’s a saleswoman and her last name is Loman!), and A.J. Fikry, owner of Island Books on remote Alice Island. A.J. is a grump – partly by nature and partly due to his wife’s recent death. He’s left alone in her small hometown, running the business they both started, and steadily drinking himself to death. The first meeting between Amelia and A.J. does not go well.

Then A.J. goes for a run one night and returns to find a baby in his bookstore. More specifically, a two-year-old named Maya. Here’s where my problem with the book began. The normal reaction to finding an abandoned child – even one with a note from her deceased mother pinned to her – is not to choose to raise that child as your own. Especially when you are a grumpy widower with a failing business and a drinking problem. That isn’t the next logical step and so the author has to convince me as to why a character might make that leap. (M.L. Stedman does an excellent job of this in a similar scenario in The Light Between Oceans.) Why does A.J. want to or choose to raise this child? Why do the authorities let him? Aren’t there legal procedures that he has to follow? The whole adoption process is really glossed over in the novel. Yes, I understand that adoption isn’t really what this book about but you have to give the reader something. There’s a single scene between A.J. and the social worker where he says he wants to keep Maya – after spending a single weekend with her, mind you – and the social worker thinks that Maya is one of the lucky ones. Wouldn’t she be just as likely to think that A.J. is some sort of pedophile? Show us why the social worker thinks this will work!

I suppose this issue is only a symptom of my greater problem with the novel. It’s cheesy and unrealistic and it didn’t have to be. I think there’s a lot of good material and some glimmers of greatness, which makes the kitschiness and unrealism all the more disappointing.

The format is appealing. Each chapter begins with the title of a short story and a blurb (written by A.J.) as to why he likes this particular story. Any booklover will enjoy that. The novel is full of book references that a well-read reader will love picking up on. And if you’ve worked in a bookstore you can’t help but smile at many of A.J. frustrations and excitements and the relationship he begins to build in his community through his business and love of the written word.

Yet it’s not enough. The novel spans many years in A.J.’s life (as well as a handful of other important characters who circle around him). Perhaps this book should have been longer, delved a little deeper and let us discover things about A.J., rather than simply throwing these events at us and bashing the emotions over our head. The supporting characters are fun but not particularly deep. Maya always seems a little too smart for her age. Lambiase, the local police chief who starts a book club is charming but never quite expands past a police officer. I found the most interesting secondary character was A.J.’s former brother-in-law, Daniel Parish. A once popular author, whose subsequent books have never been as successful as his first novel, Daniel is also a fairly horrible man. Zevin shows that she can do subtlety well as Daniel demonstrates who you can love a book and still hate the author. I only wish she had used that talent more widely through the whole novel.

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