Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Gabrielle Zevin is a vibrant, young novelist who recently published  In the Age of Love and Chocolate (2013), the first book in the Birthright Series for young adults. She is best known for her young adult novel, Elsewhere, published in 2005 when she was only 28. Translated into 20 languages, it received an American Library Association Notable Children's Book award and was nominated for a Quill Award. To date, Zevin has published 8 novels, 5 of which are for teens.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an adult novel whose themes are universal and would appeal to good readers at any age. It is set in a fictional New England town and the action takes place in and around a bookstore. The main protagonist of the story is A.J. Fikry - a bookseller who is both a curmudgeon and a literary snob. He has recently lost his beloved wife, and at 39, has alienated all around him. His tastes are academic, at best, and definitely not suitable for a successful bookseller.

When a new publisher's representative, Amelia, visits the store, she asks A.J. what he likes.

Like, he repeats with distaste. How about I tell you what I don't like? I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where there shouldn't be--basically gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful--nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children's books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult.  (pp. 13-14)

A. J.'s list of dislikes goes on for another page. What he does like are short story collections which, of course, sell few copies.

A.J. never planned on owning a bookstore. He was working on his doctorate in American Literature when his wife suggested they take their savings and invest in one. She was truly the heart and soul of the shop. When she died, and along with her, their unborn child, A. J. became the sole proprietor of Island Books. We, the readers, meet him as he tries to keep his shop afloat amidst a failing economy and the competition with ebooks.

Then something happens which changes the course of his life - the abandonment of a two-year old girl in the scant children's book aisle. The events that follow and the cascade of colorful characters that enter his life thereafter make this book both entertaining and meaningful.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is seemingly light, much like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce or Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. But beneath the depiction of quirky characters lie hidden truths - that friendship and love are essential to well-being and that everyone is affected by the vagaries of fate. Ultimately, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is about the transformative nature of literature.

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