It would be hard to picture someone less likely than A.J Fitkry to be the owner of the only bookshop of a small New England island.
Fitkry does love books. It’s his customers he doesn’t much care for, particularly those who spend all afternoon looking at his magazine collection but buying nothing, and those who know nothing more about the book they want than it was in the New York Review of Books and it had a red cover. Still less does he care for publishers’ reps who turn up at the door of Island Books trying to push their latest catalogues. And he definately doesn’t have a very high opinion of writers, viewing them generally as “unkempt, narcissitic, silly and generally unpleasant people.”
He does hold very clear views on what constitutes good literature and it certainly isn’t anything in the realm of “postmodernism, post apocalyptic settings, postmodern narrators, or magical realism.” He loves short stories but his customers are no so enthusiastic. Hardly surprising that Island Books is experiencing its worst ever sales. Only the annual influx of tourists in the summer will help keep the ship afloat.
Fikry’s life is similarly in a downward spiral. Since the death of his wife in a road accident, he’s turned his back on the world. He numbs his pain with copious amounts of wine and dreaming of a retirement financed by the sale of his most prized possession, a very rare first edition of early Edgar Allan Poe poetry. Those plans are thrown into chaos however when the book is stolen.
Two events change his world.
First, Amelia, a new and ultra keen sales rep arrives from Knightley Press. She and A.J fail completely to connect on her first visit but slowly the ice thaws and they develop a relationship vial email and occasional lunches. More unexpectedly, someone deposits a baby girl named Maya in his shop, asking Fikry to take care of her, which he does, reluctantly at first but gradually forming a close bond with the child. Maya and Amelia provide the watershed in the life of this curmudgeonly book seller, giving him a chance to see everything through new eyes and to form new friendships.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is essentially a tale about redemption and the way life sometimes deals us a second chance to reconnect Running through the novel is a message about the transformative power of reading. The women who turn up to give him free child-minding advice turn into customers and then a book club and a police officer who is Fitry’s self-appointed guardian angel gets the reading bug too and starts his own book club for police and fire officers (they spend most of their meetings arguing about the validity of the detection methods in the crime novel they read that month.) Even Fitry has to change his opinions and finds there are such things as well written children’s books.
Appropriately for a novel featuring a book shop, there is a high bookish element to this novel — apart from the many references to books made by the characters, each chapter begins with the title of a real short story and a brief personal note from Fitry to Maya about the story . His verdict on Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Claveras County is that it’s worth reading because of the fun Twain has with narrative authority even if the author is having more fun than the reader. Irwin Shaw’s Girls in their Summer Dresses prompts a fatherly note to Maya: “Someday you may think of marrying. Pick someone who thinks you’re the only person in the room.”
This is a perfect novel for those who like fiction with a high poignancy and life affirming quota. It’s not quite my cup of tea. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it — Zevin is an accomplished author so her story reads very smoothly and I enjoyed many parts of it, particularly the section that leads up to the discovery of the child and the humour of the police chief’s book club. But much of the book felt too much like the adage ‘happiness writes white’ for my taste. I’d have preferred it if Fitry had stayed grumpy for a lot longer and Maya wasn’t portrayed quite so much as an extraordinary child. Maybe that’s just me being grumpy though.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fitry by Gabrielle Zevin is published in paperback by Algonquin Books in US and Little, Brown in the UK in April 2014.
Thanks to the publishers for providing me with an advance copy.
Gabrielle Zevin has published six novels – learn more about her work at her website http://gabriellezevin.com