The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is the first heartwarming book I’ve read in a long time. My heart was in dire need of warming and this book did the trick. How it is I end up reading a particular book at the time I read it is an endlessly fascinating question to me. Is it mere coincidence that each book seems to come into my life for a precisely-timed reason, giving me the exact message or inspiration I need? Are books, in some sense, the way the Divine chooses to communicate with me? That does seem to be the case, yet my rational mind insists it is only my fanciful imagination that makes it seem that way. Anyway, I think I found The Storied Life…. on a list of good books published in 2014 and felt like I needed to read it.
If books were the divine conveyors of inspiration, then I suppose book stores or libraries would be the temples. This novel takes place primarily in a book store called Island Books. A.J., the owner, is a depressed literature lover, aged 39 when the story begins, who is grieving the loss of his beautiful wife and business partner Nicole, killed two years previously in a car accident.
Island Books is located on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, a fictional place very like Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, cold and isolated in the winter and flooded with tourists in the summer. It is important to the story that the island is not an easy place to get to – it can only be reached by ferry. Island Books is important to the town of Alice because it serves as a social center for the townsfolk with its book events and book club meetings. It also lends the town an aura of educated classiness, as book stores tend to do. The isolated location of the town provides a sense of cozy boundaries and forces the characters to make definite decisions about things like getting married and pursuing careers.
When the story begins A.J. is grumpy, unfriendly, and self-destructive. But he loves books so of course we know he is inherently redeemable. In the first chapter, Amelia, a new rep from Knightly Publishing Company, makes the long trip to discuss the winter catalog. A.J. is in a bad mood. He is rude to her and doesn’t even order any books, but somehow we know Amelia is going to play a role in his redemption. But first a couple of other life-changing things happen to A.J.: one bad and one good.
I saw at least one review that compares this book to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, one of my other favorite heart warmers. Both novels have rather long titles and both celebrate the healing power, joy, and social connectivity of books. But The Storied Life is a much simpler, quieter book than Guernsey. Rather than being set during and after a war with bombs and Nazis, it is just about a small group of lovable characters who read a lot and draw strength and guidance from books.
A.J. has a marked preference for short stories, and refers to lots of them, so I enjoyed the added benefit of being able to accumulate a list of stories I have yet to read. I enjoyed A.J.’s commentary about several short stories I have read including The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark Twain, and several by Edgar Allen Poe, A.J.’s literary specialty. I am glad I recently read Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find because that story comes up several times in the course of the novel.
Of course there is a charming cast of quirky supporting characters, especially the kindly Chief Lambiase. I wish all cops were like Lambiase, who slowly develops from a non-reader to an enthusiastic book lover through his friendship with A.J. I really think reading books leads anyone to become a better person in general. Also there is Ismay Parrish, the sister of A.J.’s deceased wife, a high school English and drama teacher who is depressed about her bad marriage to Daniel, a philandering writer. By the end on the novel Ismay experiences a redemption of her own.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an excellent read for book lovers, especially book lovers who prefer the old-fashioned paper kind. A.J. is repelled and horrified by be e-readers. I enjoyed how the author deals with the issue of e-readers versus traditional (i.e., “real” books). There is a rumor going around that brick and mortar book stores are going the way of the horse and carriage. This novel makes a valiant and romantic case for their continued survival. I certainly love nothing better than a book store and want to believe such places and their literature-loving book sellers will be around to grace our cities and towns for many years to come.
Just for fun I checked to see if this novel is available for Kindle. It is! In fact you can download it free if you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited.