Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

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

2014
272 pages

A.J. Fikry is cranky, grumpy, and hard to please. An independent bookstore owner living on the fictitious Alice Island off the Massachusetts coast, A.J. sells only titles matching his particular tastes and not the preferences of his elite summer clientele. (Alice Island appears to be a not-so-subtle stand-in for the presidential Romper Room of Martha’s Vineyard.)

Early in the novel, A.J. makes his literary specifications known when he behaves like a pompous ass during his first meeting with Amelia Loman, a publisher’s account representative visiting Island Books for the first time.

“I do not like postmodernism, post¬-apocalyptic 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 do not like genre mash-ups à 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.”

In the real-life book world, Gabrielle Zevin’s seventh novel danced around The New York Times Best Seller list and garnered overwhelming praise from reviewers despite being the very embodiment of the books A.J. himself proclaims to hate.

Alas, after spending 260 pages with him, I found little to like about A.J. or much about his storied life (which I kept wanting to call his “storified” life, as in the social media app).

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is gimmicky. (Check!) My God, is it ever gimmicky. Magical realism is sprinkled throughout. (Check!) There are elements of a literary whodunit. (A rare book goes missing. Check!)

Worse of all, there’s an adoption storyline with an actual orphan (check!) that is entirely unrealistic. Within paragraphs, Maya is abandoned in the bookstore with a note, her mother turns up dead, and nobody bothers with pesky details like searching for a biological father or next of kin before deciding that it’s perfectly fine to let A.J. keep her. Anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of such matters knows that this is exactly how such things always work out.

Being the paternal type, A.J. plops the precocious toddler in the aisle of his bookstore all day while he runs his business. And everyone lives happily ever after until the Very Predictable, Very Sad Thing happens.

Perhaps all this is meant to be enchanting in a fairy tale nod-to-the-literary greats of Poe and Woolf sort of way. Perhaps I’m just as much of a curmudgeon as A.J. Fikry and completely missing the point.

Perhaps we readers aren’t supposed to take ourselves so damn seriously and instead are to focus on A.J.’s life purpose: to connect people with great books.

If so, it doesn’t work.

Too many things are too problematic and glaring in this novel. In addition to the Maya adoption storyline that I found irksome, several other plot lines move too quickly. There’s a word jumble similarity between several characters’ names – Maya, Amy, Ismay – that seems to have some symbolism but remains unexplained. The requisite love interest feels drawn out, manufactured and forced rather than natural.

Movie-tie in editions are among the type of books that A.J. Fikry is “repulsed by.” Ironically, even before I started reading I thought that The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry sounded like a book title begging to be made into a romantic comedy. Indeed, I’d be shocked if someone doesn’t take this to the big screen. If so, maybe A.J. can be finally proven wrong.

One can only hope this becomes the rare case where the movie is actually better than the book.

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