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.
We are not quite novels.
We are not quite short stories.
In the end, we are collected works.
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 Chief Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward him; from Ismay, his sister-in-law, who is hell-bent on saving A.J. from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who persists in taking the ferry 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, he 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, though large in weight—an unexpected arrival that gives A.J. 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., for the determined sales rep Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light, 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.
This book was a pretty quick read and I really enjoyed it! Part of it was definitely because I generally just love books about books (see: Book Review: Words In Deep Blue). Also, the humor and charm of this book reminded me a lot of A Man Called Ove, a book that begins as this book did–with a grumpy curmudgeon.
This book was written in the present tense and it definitely took some getting used to, since most of the books I read are written in the past tense, but once I did get used to it, it set a very memoir-esque tone to the book which I really loved.
One of the most unique things about this book was its structure. The book covered a rather large span of time (maybe around 15 years or so?), but each chapter was, in a sense, centered around a theme. This meant that Gabrielle Zevin made many leaps in time (though the story was still told chronologically) so as to focus deeply on just the significant moments supporting the theme. However, Zevin never really made a big deal about these time jumps (as opposed to explicitly stating “1 year later…” as many books do), which let the book have a good flow despite the jumps.
However, while I did like the time jumps and how Zevin chose to cover a couple of moments deeply rather than many moments shallowly, it became pretty clear after a couple of chapters that every single scene held a lot of import to the storyline. I know that every scene of a story should have a purpose, but it felt like every single scene had some sort of intense backstory behind it. I didn’t really like this because 1) it overdramatized some aspects of the book (and the book was already pretty dramatic), 2) it made some of the “plot twists” rather predictable since I was constantly anticipating them, and 3) it felt at times like the scenes existed just to carry the plot, rather than to simply develop the characters or add lightheartedness to the book. I mean, this didn’t take too much away from the book, but I’d have loved more pages that existed simply to exist, rather than to serve an ultimate purpose.
However, there was definitely an aspect of the book that benefited from this intense-backstory-and-purpose situation: the chapter intros, where A.J. wrote reflections on short stories. They were already genius in the way they set up the chapters’ themes, and I also thought they did a nice job of showcasing A.J.’s thoughts and personality, but then, it turned out that these synopses actually had a purpose, and an extremely heartbreaking one at that.
The characters were all very lovable, or at least understandable, and I thought Zevin used the point of view (omniscient third person) really well. Zevin focused on different characters’ thoughts and backstories with each chapter/section, and this almost made it seem like I was reading a melange of genres–YA, romance, drama, and even mystery. It never leaned too heavily towards one genre (other than contemporary literary fiction, I guess, since that’s what the book as a whole is classified as), which made it really interesting to read.
Overall, this book was sweet and endearing with many quotable lines, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a light, yet memorable, read.
“The words you can’t find, you borrow.”Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry