Thursday, March 20, 2014

Greater Than the Sum of Its Short Stories

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin


A.J. Fikry happily abandoned his PhD in American Literature to open the first bookstore on Alice Island, the place his wife Nic grew up and always wanted to return to. But since the car accident that killed both her and their unborn baby, this New England summer tourist trap has become a year-round prison of memories and loss. He's now determined to bankrupt his business and then sell his only rare, first-edition book so he can retire and drink himself to death. It doesn't help that his favorite book rep from Knightly Publishers has died and he only finds this out when his replacement, Amelia Lohman shows up pushing their winter list. Then his book is stolen and on the same day, he finds Maya, a 25 month old baby girl, abandoned by her mother in his shop, who she left especially for him. Everything that happens after Maya's mother's body is washed ashore helps A.J. Fikry to slowly understand the sign that adorns the Island Books' shop: “No Man is an Island; Every Book is a World.”

The blurb that said this novel is "In the spirit of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry," should have turned me off immediately. Why? Because much like our titular character, I hate it when publishers do something as gimmicky as take two beloved books and try to convince me that I'll love this one by comparing this one to them. However, what I couldn't resist was a novel about a book store in what sounded like a very charming, if isolated place. You see, I believe that anyone who adores books as much as I do, but then tells you that they haven't even once dreamed about making their living totally surrounded by them, is a bald-faced liar. So of course I was drawn to this book, and I cannot thank the publishers enough for letting me read it.

There are several reasons why this book has already become a favorite of mine. To begin with, I truly appreciated the originality of how Zevin prefaced each chapter with a short blurb, critique or comment by Fikry about different short stories. These are each followed by a chapter in Fikry's life that, in one way or another, relates to the same short story. In fact, the first part of the book almost felt like a collection of well-related short stories. But even a collection of the best well-related short stories do not make a novel. However, Zevin overcame this by slowly transforming this unique-feeling format into a fully, solid and cohesive work. I can't say exactly when this happened; it just does. When you realize this, you'll also understand why you've stop wanting to put the novel down.

Of course, any story is only as good as its characters, and Zevin gives us just the right sized slew of them that go from charming to appalling us. Of course, our main protagonist is the titular book store owner. Despite his curmudgeonly attitude at the onset of the book, we watch him morph into someone we care deeply about as the story progresses. The empathy for A.J. is, of course, essential to the overall story, as is his relationship with his adopted daughter Maya. Zevin also gives us A.J.'s sister-in-law Ismay (Nic's sister), who is married to the philandering author (of one-hit and several misses) Daniel Parish. Then there is Lambiase, Alice Island's Chief of Police, who A.J. ends up going to with each of his emergencies, which leads to their friendship. Finally, as any good playwright knows, you can't show a gun in the first act and not have it go off by act three; Amelia Loman from the first chapter reappears to take on a major role later in the book. Each and every character is imperfectly human, and utterly believable.

Speaking of that "gun in the first act," I was happy to see how Zevin included her veritable gun from early on in the book into one of the last acts. Remember, this is coming from someone who doesn't always want everything to be tied up neatly at the end of every novel. But in this case, despite the slightly more than usual convenience of it, I have to say it worked very well. In fact, if there is anything people might criticize about this novel, it will be this handy coincidence being just a bit too expedient. However, I didn't find it overly so, and considering the power of how the novel ends, including the unexpected twists along the way, I can't say this detracted at all from the overall work.

It will be no surprise that I'm giving this novel a full five stars out of five. It is perfectly written, interestingly constructed, has sympathetic characters (including the ones you won't like), and makes for an all-round compelling read with its well formed plot. I can't think of anything else that anyone could ask for, except to tell you to read this book - you won't regret it.

"The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin, released by Algonquin Books on April 1, 2014, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook and audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books, or from an IndieBound store near you. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy of this book via NetGalley. This review also appears on my Times of Israel blog.