Oh, to read The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is like going to the library and coming home with all the books you wanted. It makes you feel that good, this story about a bookseller and his bookstore.
Though it’s not all sunshine and roses – more than one person dies in the story – it’s a book that warms your heart. Booklovers especially will love The Storied Life of AJ Fikry because it’s a book about books, booklovers, readers and writers.
AJ Fikry, the owner of Island Books, the only bookstore on Alice Island in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is drowning his sorrows in drink following the death of his wife, the poet Nicole, when he is upset by the loss of his most prized possession – a rare book of poems by Edgar Allen Poe called Tamerlane. A few weeks later, a baby turns up at the bookstore – unattended. Sitting next to her is a doll with a note pinned on it. The note reads:
To the Owner of This Bookstore,
This is Maya. She is twenty-five months old. She is VERY SMART, exceptionally verbal for her age, and a sweet, good girl. 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. I love her very much, but I can no longer take care of her. The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help. I am desperate.
AJ adopts the baby, who attracts people to the shop. The twosome becomes a threesome. AJ falls in love and marries Amelia, a book publisher’s representative who has been visiting the shop regularly to sell books from her publishing house.
When Maya in school attends a creative writing class, she is encouraged like all budding writers to read. Help is close at hand, her adoptive bookseller father points out in a letter slipped under her bedroom door:
If you’re stuck, reading helps.
The Beauties by Anton Chekhov. The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield… Fat by Raymond Carver, Indian Camp by Ernest Hemingway.
We should have them all downstairs. Just ask if you can’t find anything, though you know where everything is better than I.
Booklovers will, of course, love these references to other books and stories. The Storied Life of AJ Fikry is a literary novel which lovingly describes the bookworld. There is even a writer writing under a pen name, a woman pretending to be a man.
Amelia discovers her when she organizes a reading by the author of one of her favourite books, She has never met the author before, but the bushy-bearded, red-nosed Santa Claus-like figure who turns up doesn’t match the author’s photo.
Amelia discovers the real author when she starts talking to the woman who introduces herself as Leonora Ferris.
Trying to find out why Leonora – a complete stranger – has come to Alice, Amelia says: “No one travels without purpose. Those who are lost wish to be lost.”
“You’re quoting The Late Bloomer,” Leonora says after a long pause. “It really was your favourite.”
“It was,” Amelia says… “Do you remember the rest of the quote?”
“No,” Leonora says.
“Writers don’t remember everything they write,” Amelia says. “How could they?”
“Nice talking to you.” Leonora starts heading for the door.
Amelia puts her hand on Leonora’s shoulder.
“You’re him, aren’t you?” Amelia says. “You’re Leon Friedman.”
Leonora shakes her head. “Not truly.”
“What does that mean?”
“A long time ago, a girl wrote a novel, and she tried to sell it, but no wanted it. It was about an old man who lost his wife, and it didn’t have supernatural beings in it or a high concept to speak of, and so she thought it would be easier if she retitled the book and called it a memoir.”
“That’s … That’s wrong,” Amelia stammers.
“No, it isn’t. All the things in it are still emotionally true even if they aren’t literally so.”
“So who was that man?”
“I called a casting office. He usually plays Santa.”
Amelia shakes her head. “I don’t understand. Why do the reading? Why go to the expense and bother? Why risk it?”
“The book has already flopped. And sometimes you want to know… to see for yourself that your work has meant something to someone.”
Amelia looks at Leonora. “I feel a little fooled,” she says finally. “You’re a good writer, you know?”
“I do know,” Leonora says.
Leonora Ferris disappears down the street and Amelia goes back into the (book)store.
I won’t tell the whole story, but it all ties together nicely in the end. Even the missing rare book is found and it helps pay for AJ’s medical treatment. We also learn more about Maya’s mother who had an affair with a writer. There is pain and loss as in real life, but love and happiness, too.
The book ends as it began, with a publisher’s representative walking in to sell books, except that it’s not AJ he wants to see, but AJ’s friend, Lambiase, the former police chief.
Time and tide wait for no man, it’s said, there’s been change even at Island Books, but that’s life. It goes on.
Before the end, before the publisher’s representative comes calling for his friend instead of him, there’s a moment where AJ, lying in his sickbed, tells Maya: “We aren’t the things we collect, acquire, read. We are, as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved. The people we loved. And these, I think, these really do live on.”
It may sound corny and sentimental, but you can feel the love and warmth of AJ and his friends. The Storied Life of AJ Fikry is balmy as a sunny day. This is a book that reminds you there’s so much to love about the world.