A.J. Fikry’s storied life is one worth sharing

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 29, 2014

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” by Gabrielle Zevin. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2014. 258 pp. $24.95.
What a perfect summer book ‘The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is, fast-paced, with a goodly number of surprises, likeable, if flawed characters. It’s a good book for any time, really.
Author Gabrielle Zevin, who has written a number of young adult books, does a great job of presenting an emotional story with a lightness of being and a no-nonsense approach. You’re more likely to smile while reading this book than not, even though death is an underlying theme.
What matters is this group of people care for each other and books and the important things in life. They aren’t glued to electronic devices or the least bit trendy. And Zevin manages to wrap up the many threads into a lovely package.
A.J. Fikry is in dire straights — he owns Island Books, an independent bookstore that sees most of its business in the summer. Or it did, until Fikry’s wife died in an accident. It used to be lively with events, author visits and book clubs.
A.J. is rather morose now, existing on booze, frozen food and anger. When Amelia Loman, a new rep from Knightley Press shows up with yellow fingernails and a positive attitude, it’s more than he can bear.
“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 they 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 children’s books, especially ones with orphans and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. …” on and on he goes.
At that point, it’s easy to imagine A.J. giving up, especially after his one prized possession, a rare copy of “Tamerlane and Other Poems” by Edgar Allan Poe, disappears from his apartment while he is passed out drunk.
Well, so much for early retirement and a way out. Somehow, the loss frees him, so that when he’s confronted with a 2-year-old in the children’s section after the store is closed and everyone is gone, something flinty in him goes soft.
The mother who left her in the store has left a note with this plea, “I want her to grow up to be a reader. I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things.” Quite unexpectedly, so does A.J.
Zevin wisely skips through the obviously convoluted and trying adoption process, and focuses on how happy these two, grumpy A.J. and bright Maya, make each other.
By now, A.J. has a few friends, including the police chief, Lambiase, who adores the child, as well. A.J.’s sister-in-law, Ismay, is less charmed, but she helps to care for Maya while her wandering author husband philanders.
Things begin to change. Book clubs come back to the store, starting with Lambiase’s own crime club for officers. A.J.’s fatherhood teaches him that life goes on and he should be engaged in it.
Amelia, lover of books and bookstores and the atmosphere of a cluttered store, provides further redemption.
Zevin’s characters all grow up in some way. She spares us tedious details and focuses instead on successes, challenges, moments of joy.
Maybe the book doesn’t have to end the way it does, but again, Zevin shows that funny way life has of moving on, adapting, changing. The author is not maudlin or sappy in telling this story, although some readers found the book overly fluffy. In other cases, the relative simplicity is ultimately appealing. Plus, Zevin starts every chapter with a literary recommendation from A.J. for Maya. A.J. is particularly fond of short stories, and tacks this to the end of his take on “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” 1868, by Bret Hart:
“Remember Maya: the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.”