What immediately drew me to this unusual novel was the author Gabrielle Zevin’s technique of starting each chapter with the title of a famous short story like “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe and introducing that segment with a one-page tie in. Other stories she headlines her chapters with include Roald Dahl’s “Lambs to the Slaughter”, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (Raymond Carver), and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.
To get to A. J. Fikry’s island bookstore is a formidable task that culminates in a ferry ride, but to the new publisher’s representative, Amelia Loman, it’s her job. Her destination is a small quaint business named Island Books in which an eccentric owner, A. J. Fikry, invests very limited tastes when it comes to selecting the types of books he can tolerate. He has a special liking for short story collections. Furthermore, Mr. Fikry expresses rude behavior toward the stunned Loman, who has recently replaced another representative (deceased) whom he had grown comfortable with. Fikry’s first meeting with Loman is a disaster, but she is determined to win him over.
Fikry and his late wife had invested in the bookstore (She wanted it more than he). He has only one employee and he threatens to fire her someday. She seems indifferent and he doesn’t like her off-handed manner.
As the short novel progresses, a rare book by Poe is stolen; a baby is abandoned on the premises; and a local policeman who is primarily into reading mass fiction copies of Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels, becomes a godfather and promoter of better reading among fellow officers. Romance blossoms, mysteries are resolved, and tragedy occurs.
Zevin’s dialogue rings true; her descriptions are studded with vivid imagery; and she paces her novel so that the reader’s interest doesn’t flag. Here is an excerpt:
“Amelia introduces herself (to the single employee, the moody teenager) as the sales rep from Knightley Press, and the teenager, without looking up from the page, points vaguely to the back. ‘A.J.’s in his office.’ Precarious stacks of ARC’s and galleys line the hallway, and Amelia feels the usual flash of despair. The tote bag that is embossing her shoulder has several editions for A. J’s piles and a catalog filled with other books for her to pitch… The door to A.J. Fikry’s office is closed. Amelia is halfway to it when the sleeve of her sweater catches on one of the stacks, and one hundred books, maybe more, crash to the ground with a mortifying thunder. The door opens, and A.J. Fikry looks from the wreckage to the dirty-blond giantess, who is frantically trying to repile the books. ‘Who the hell are you?’ ‘Amelia Loman.’ She stacks ten more tomes and half of them tumble down. ‘Leave it,’ A. J. commands. ‘There’s an order to these things. You are not helping. Please leave.'”
Another excerpt illustrates her mastery of description (Fikry has been disturbed by his rude treatment of the rep and runs browsing, non-buying customers out of the store): “Finally he goes upstairs to the attic apartment where he lives. He pops a carton of frozen vndaloo (an India curry) into the microwave. Nine minutes, per the box’s instructions. As he’s standing there, he thinks of the girl from Knightley. She had looked like a time traveler from 1990s Seattle with her anchor printed galoshes and her grandma dress and her fuzzy beige sweater and her shoulder-length hair that looked like it had been cut in the kitchen by her boyfriend. Girlfriend? Boyfriend, he decides… (While his vindaloo is cooking he busies himself with collapsing book cartons) By the time he gets back upstairs, the vindaloo is cold again. If he reheats it in that plastic dish, he will probably end up with cancer. He takes the plastic tray to the table. The first bite is burning. The second bite is frozen. Papa Bear’s vindaloo and Baby Bear’s vindaloo. He throws the tray against the wall… “
If you like novels about remote places, baby adoption, bookstores, allusions to famous short stories, and whimsical characters, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is for you.
The novel is alternately sad, ironic, romantic, and tragic. It’s about turnabout in one’s life, unselfishness, bonding, acceptance, and friendship.