There are winks and nudges galore in Gabrielle Zevin’s novel The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. This was my book club’s first read in 2015 and we gathered last night to discuss its merits. Okay, mostly everyone discussed its merits; I acted like Mr. Fikry himself before the magical arrival of Maya: grouchy. I didn’t like the book. It was easy to read and I wanted to like it and I should have liked it, given the subject matter – bookstores and the importance of reading…but, nope, just fell flat for me.
A. J. owns a bookstore on the fictional island of Alice which is located somewhere off the coast of Hyannis. He’s a cranky guy, but I guess it’s understandable because his wife, Nic, was killed in a car accident just under two years ago and A.J. hasn’t recovered. The book store was a joint venture, dreamed up when he and Nic were in grad school. They took her trust fund money and opened Island Books, but A.J. is sort of the antithesis of everything you’d expect in a book store owner.
In fact, we meet first meet him when Amelia Loman arrives at his store to discuss Knightley Press’s winter catalogue. A.J. tells her:
I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magical 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 – non-fiction only please. I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or the 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. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and – I imagine this goes without saying – vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry or translations.
Island Books sounds like an inviting place, eh? Luckily for A.J. it’s the only game in town and Alice Island is a popular summer destination, so he makes a decent living off the tourists. He’s not popular with the locals, but no wonder; he has the personality of a prickly pear.
Then, someone leaves a baby in the bookstore and A.J.’s paternal instincts kick in. In short order, much like the Grinch, A.J.’s heart grows in size and everything in his life changes. Of course it does.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry should have been right up my alley. Island Books inhabit a purple Victorian cottage. Be still my heart. A.J. has my dream job in my dream building. The novel is peppered with references to short stories and plays and novels, most of which I am intimately familiar (thus the nudging and winking). It celebrates the value and power of books.
I just didn’t believe it. There was something hokey and almost to-good-to-be-true about the book, about the characters and their journeys. I won’t go so far as to say that it was a waste of time, but I have to admit to being disappointed when I finished.