by Jenny Fiore (Army, Special Forces)
Everyone has a little ritual in the way they decide on a new book. Some people read the back cover. Some read the last page. I tend to read the first page, as well as the author bio on the book jacket. Gabrielle Zevin’s seventh novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, didn’t hook me on the first page. And while the list of writing accomplishments on her book-jacket bio is nothing to sneeze at, she posed for the picture like a little coquette. Had I not committed to review her book, she’d probably be back on the shelf. Shame on me: It turns out she can actually write.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry feels like a bedtime story for grownups. (I’d love to have someone read it aloud to me by a nightlight.) I didn’t really know where it was going, and after a while, I didn’t mind. It had momentum, and I just wanted to watch the characters living their lives, like a voyeur peeking into the upstairs apartment of a little indie bookshop. Actually, the book is a lot like that.
A.J. Fikry is a young widowed owner of a declining independent bookstore on Alice Island, Massachusetts. He’s crotchety beyond his years and immediately unlikeable. The joy is in watching him undergo an almost Scrooge-like transformation. The change starts with a surprise package left in his store — I can’t divulge the contents, but they’re pretty stunning — and progresses almost entirely thanks to unexpected relationships. Essentially, we get to watch Fikry enjoy a second chance at life. Oh, yeah: There’s a twist at the end. Usually reaching a book’s big twist is like reaching the creamy center filling in a pastry, but this book didn’t need a creamy center filling. It was delightful without it. (Nonetheless, it’s a pretty great twist, and I know some readers aren’t satisfied without one.)
Years ago, I read the novel Quite a Year for Plums by Bailey White and kept waiting for the turn, the surprise, the crescendo, the — where the hell was this book going anyway? Instead, it was a collection of scenes, colorful people just going about their days. I simply walked for a while with these characters and wondered afterward if I maybe couldn’t have done something more productive with my free time, like paint my cat’s toenails. While Zevin’s novel gave me a similar sense of scenes-from-a-life, I didn’t feel any resignation in simply watching them. I was enjoying myself too much to worry about story arc, though it definitely surfaced.
Fikry is a connoisseur of books, which I believe is a reflection of the author herself. It’s clear Zevin loves and knows literature, and damn, can she tell a sweet story. Not saccharine but heartwarming and colorful and quirky in all the right ways. Little revelations. Great dialogue. Solid pacing. Plausible yet magical. I kept flipping to her bio picture to remind myself that she wasn’t some 50-something literature instructor with a twinkle of wisdom in her eyes. Nope, she was actually that girl who looked like she was posing inside a Forever 21 dressing room for a Tinder dating profile. Wow.
After this, I’m going to have to abandon my usual modus operandi for picking books. It almost caused me to miss out on a really lovely little tale. I will miss A.J. Fikry and the characters that surrounded him. I also intend to revisit — or read for the first time — pretty much every book Fikry reviews between the chapters. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is one of my favorite reads in recent memory. It rests now on a shelf I reserve only for books I enjoyed enough to share.
Visit author Gabrielle Zevin’s web site here
About the Reviewer:
Formerly the publications director for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC, Jenny Fiore now spends most of her time redirecting used underwear into hampers. A proud stay-at-home mom, she’s slowly returning to her former career in writing and editing. Jenny is a Pushcart Prize special mention honoree for literary nonfiction, and her more noteworthy writing appears in Brain, Child and BRAVA magazines. She loosely blogs at http://themomplex.net/
Jenny is also the author of the humorous essay collection After Birth: Unconventional Writings from the Mommylands (Possibilities Publishing, 2013). Her essay “A Year at the Lake,” about her Green Beret husband’s 15-month deployment when their daughter was a toddler, appears here.