Review of THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY by GABRIELLE ZEVIN
(review based on an advance reading copy)
This book won me over almost immediately and more than lived up to its considerable hype. I had heard enthusiastic endorsements from well over a dozen people before starting this novel but the story nevertheless exceeded my expectations. Both droll and shrewd in tone, THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY is above all beautiful, heartwarming, and original.
Our star, the cynical A.J. Fikry, owns a small independent bookstore, but his passion for his work died with his wife. Now his job is, well, just a job. He gets through the day and often drinks through the night. Then someone abandons a baby in his store with a note suggesting he raise the child. Naturally A.J. balks at this proposition at first, but by the time Maya’s mother washes ashore after her suicide he can’t bear to send little Maya away. From there, the book has a wide time arch, covering A.J. and Maya’s unusual, moving, sometimes rocky, always book-dosed life together.
The characters feel so believable that they practically emerge from the pages. Sometimes Zevin utilizes hyperbole for humor (like the cop book group that has such impassioned debates about the mystery novels they read that someone pulls their gun), but that aside every moment feels so probable, and so human. The characters are complex and flawed and many embody a typical reader: more than a little cynical because they think they’ve seen every plot twist and that predictability drains a story of emotion.
This novel also features a strong voice (which goes along with dynamic characters) and excellent writing. I rarely pay as much attention to specific lines as I do to the overall story, but I stuffed THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY with so many post-its marking memorable quotes that my book looked more like my scrap paper storage unit. Sometimes I marked pages because a line made me laugh aloud and other times because a concise insight felt so truthful.
Speaking of laughing aloud, the humorous tone came as a wonderful surprise. Dozens of people told me to read this book: because it’s a book about books and book lovers, because it’s well written, because it’s moving, because the end made them cry. Yet not one person mentioned that it’s also hilarious. I smiled, chuckled, or cracked up more times than I can count and often quoted to anyone nearby (who then wanted to read the book as well).
Of course, I didn’t only mark funny quotes. As well as writing dry wit, Zevin can zero in on small realities about life (and reading specifically) that hit me hard with their truthfulness. As a single example, at one point A.J. muses on a conundrum with which many avid readers can relate. He read and loved a book that by all measures he should consider trash. He’s trying to write a review and doesn’t know how to justify his endearment for a book that’s poorly written and plotted, lacks depth, and features flat characters. Then he acknowledges that despite the book’s easy-to-name flaws he connected. And connecting is rather the point of reading (and life, he acknowledges with only a little recoil at his own sentimentality.)
Though I think many people will enjoy this book, I, too, must acknowledge that it’s perfect for bibliophiles, especially anyone who works in the book industry - be you bookseller, writer, editor, agent, publisher, etc.) The writing’s packed with spot on remarks about reading and literature, not to mention inside jokes about particular works and the bookselling/publishing/writing industries. (The comment about Maeve Binchy’s work made me snort out my drink.)
In short: a spellbinding tale of human connection that reads like a love letter to books.