Can a Curmudgeon Warm Your Heart? Read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
A novel for booklovers
Delightful book discovery
I often choose a book because I've read a review of it or because one of my reader friends recommended it to me. (I also occasionally admit to picking my next read based solely on the appeal of the front cover.)
Sometimes, I just fall onto a book, as was the case with Gabrielle Zevin's novel, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. I came across the little story perched on my Audible shelf, loaded years before and somehow overlooked until now. With no recollection of when, where, or why I purchased the book, I decided to dive in and was absolutely delighted to find out that the story centered around booksellers and book lovers, two topics I am passionate about. (Probably the reason I bought it in the first place.)
Looking back, I found reviews that touted The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry as
"a book for people who love books, who recognize a story well-told for what it is, and for the power it contains."
and a narrative that is
"Sometimes sentimental, sometimes funny, sometimes true to life and always entertaining.
A likable literary love story about selling books and finding love."
I agree. I certainly found it "likable," and will add it to the long list of novels about bookshops and bibliophiles that have found their way into my psyche.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikrey surprised me with its sweetness and charm, especially since the main character starts out as a curmudgeonly, rude, drunken sod.
A quirky cast of characters
It sounds like a riddle.
What happens when a curmudgeon, a police chief, a sales rep, a toddler, a famous writer, and a drama teacher meet in a bookstore?
You get interesting interactions and complex relationships salted liberally with literary allusions and references to books, writers, and the publishing industry. (A surefire way to turn on book geeks like me!)
The Storied Life of A. J. Firkey is a poignant tale of how life takes unexpected turns and brings people together in unexpected ways.
A. J. Fikrey, bookseller and book Lover
A. J. Fikrey is not even 40 yet, but already he's lost his soul-mate and business partner in Island Books, the only bookshop on the isolated Alice Island off of the New England coast. (As a point of fact: Alice Island doesn't exist. It's a fictional place that represents the kind of remote locales and bookish pursuits known to be part of the New England persona.)
Island Books had been the husband and wife's joint venture and livelihood. A. J. Fikrey was a scholar of American Literature and a devotee of literary fiction. He reads voraciously and prides himself on being able to recommend appropriate books for his clients. Nicki, his wife, was the event planner, marketer, and visionary of Island Books.
When Nicki, A. J. Fikrey's wife, two months pregnant with their first child, is killed in a car accident after transporting an author from a book party, A. J. is devastated and utterly lost. He drinks himself into unconsciousness every night. Island Books declines.
Amelia Loman, bookseller and book lover, too
Amelia Loman is a literature-loving, free-spirited book rep for Knightly Press who calls on Island Books three times per year.
When A.J. meets Amelia for the first time, he is still reeling from the loss of his wife. In his devastation, he is incredibly rude and abrasive to her, this new book rep who has taken over the account because the previous rep has died. A.J. can't deal with one more change in his life and treats Amelia horribly. But Amelia, "Amy" for short, continues to do her job and goes back to the remote Island Bookstore every four months to introduce A. J. Fikrey to the books from Knightly Press' seasonal catalog.
Amelia loves books and can converse about them intelligently and knowledgeably - at length and with passion - an ability that A.J. grows to appreciate over a period of years.
Chief Lambiase, a policeman not interested in books...yet
A kind-hearted policeman named Lambiase crosses paths with A.J. at the most momentous times of the bookshop owner's life. First, Lambiase is the one who has to tell A.J. that his wife has been killed in a car accident. Then Lambiase is the law enforcement official that A.J. calls when a two-year-old girl named Maya is abandoned at Island books with a note from the mother that "gave" the baby to him to raise.
Chief Lambiase is grateful to A. J. for sheltering Maya, the abandoned child, and his continued interest in the sad, widowed bookstore owner who takes in a toddler, causes him to visit the bookstore often, buying crime novels when he goes and developing a real passion for reading in the process.
What better basis for a friendship than an interest in the welfare of a child and a shared passion for books?
Chief Lambiase and A. J., two lonely men, form a friendship that lasts a lifetime.
The writer and the teacher
A. J. Fikry's deceased wife had a sister named Ismay. Ismay is an English teacher and drama coach at the local high school. Ismay is married to Daniel Parish, a bestselling author who had smashing success with his first book but whose career is in decline. Not one of his successive books caught on like the first novel.
But the downhill trajectory of his career does not affect Daniel negatively. He continues to act the part of a wildly popular writer, traveling and philandering across the continent while Ismay stays home.
The couple is childless, having suffered numerous miscarriages and leaving Ismay in despair.
Tamerlane and Other Literary Allusions
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is definitely a novel for book lovers. It's filled with references to books and authors, publishing and the writing process.
Integral to the plot is Edgar Allan Poe's Tamerlane, an extraordinarily rare book of poems that Poe published early in his career with only a few copies remaining in the world. The life of a book rep, author events, book clubs, and literary fraud are all touched on in the novel. ,
But for those of us who understand the impact of reading on our lives, the part of the book that touches us most is seeing how being surrounded by literature makes readers into writers. Maya, with parents who live, eat, and breathe books, naturally grows into a writer.
Improbable. Maybe impossible. But still delightful.
Was the book realistic? Absolutely not. (Would any social agency in the world allow a widowed, single man to take over the care of an abandoned child without training or rigamarole?)
Was it improbable? Yes. (Is there any chance that the personalities and needs of multiple people would come together in such perfect alignment?)
Do people really grow together, bond into lifelong friends, and turn the future of a small business around by hanging out in a bookstore? (In my dreams, yes, that would happen.)
Regardless of the plausibility of the plot, it was a delightful story that I enjoyed.
Gabrielle Zevin's Rising Star
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry was made into a movie in 2022. It didn't get stellar reviews, and I haven't seen it to comment, but I don't think I'll watch it. I enjoyed the novel so much, and the book is, after all, always better than the movie."
Zevin's star is rising. Her newest novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, follows the friendship of two game designers whose lives keep crossing paths. It's getting glowing reviews. I have not read it yet because old as I am, I can't get excited about the world of gaming like I can about the world of books, a la The Storied Life of A. J. Firky.