Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry (Gabrielle Zevin)

Thanks to Edelweiss for the opportunity to read this book as an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

In my early high school years, I read two of Gabrielle Zevin's books (Elsewhere and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac) and I really, really loved them. I hear people say "it's all about when you find a book in your life" that helps determine how you feel about it, and I guess that was true of those two books. Perhaps I came across The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry at the wrong time, then, because it certainly is great. I just didn't love it.

The fact that this book was so blatantly a love letter to bookstores and books in general was what beckoned me. How could I resist something like it? A. J. Fikry owns a small bookstore on a small island (think Martha's Vineyard, etc.). His wife has recently passed away and, depressed and lonely, A. J. has taken to alcohol to soothe himself. One night, he drinks himself to sleep and wakes up to find his place cleaned up with his original copy of Tamerlane (Edgar Allan Poe's first published work) missing.

But no one can find the rare, valuable book, and suddenly it becomes the least of Fikry's problems because someone has left a baby in his bookstore. The mother's body turns up a few days later, a clear case of suicide by drowning, and A. J. decides to take on the baby as his own. He relies on the internet and the kindness of the tight-knit community to help him raise the child, Maya, and slowly opens himself up to others.

There's not a lot about the book that's surprising: Fikry is your standard grumpy guy disappointed by life and it's clear that having baby Maya will transform him into a warm, loving person (spoiler: it does). But Zevin does it so well that I wasn't bothered by the obvious character trajectory. There's something very genuine about the way the personalities of the book are written that elevates them.

One thing I really enjoyed about the novel is the chapter divisions. Each chapter begins with a short story that A. J. has chosen for a compilation for Maya, who of course grows up to be a reader (how couldn't she?). It's clear evidence of how much this book is for people who love to read as well as one of those heartwarming moments that doesn't feel orchestrated or overthought--I want to use the word "genuine" again. You can feel the love that A. J. has for his adopted daughter; it's a great moment of "show" rather than "tell", and I suppose that's what I'm trying to get to about this book--there are very few "tell" moments and a great deal more of "show" moments and that is truly something to appreciate. Zevin never tries to get her message across through the mouths of the characters in the form of long, rambling speeches about life and love and happiness--they do it on their own, naturally and without seeming pretentious.

However, the book gets a little too sucker-punchy toward the end. I won't spoil any details of the story, but there's a jump of about ten years toward the middle of Storied Life (already not a tactic I like), and we come out on the other side in a state of affairs that's a little too sentimental for me. Emotions go flying left and right (but still, they're emotions well-written) and the novel gets a little bossy with how it wants readers to react to what it's telling us. I always run in the opposite direction when that happens, and I was a little disappointed to see it happening here.

Maybe I would have reacted differently to this were I forty years old, because it's the sort of ending that is perhaps more emotionally resonant with an older set of people--I'm an entitled college kid, so what do I really know about the hardships and pain of adult life? I don't want to speculate on something that's impossible to know. This book, I think, didn't come to me at the right time in my life. That doesn't mean it isn't a really great story, one that I know people will devour and receive tons of emotional satisfaction from. I find that most people are generally less bothered by books with bossy endings than I am.  Give The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry a try, because I'm sure you'll be lured in.

My rating: 4/5
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry on Goodreads
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