First Posted: 4/27/2015
If you love books and bookstores, you’ll be crazy about this one.
For me, no sleek tablet or skinny e-reader can match the pleasure of holding a real book in my hands, feeling its heft, smelling its ink, making notes in its margins. But, paranoid old fossil that I am, I worry that the forces of evil are conspiring to wipe out books and the cozy little bookstores that sell them. So you can imagine how happy I was to read Gabrielle Zevin’s sweet little novel, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” which offers hope that both books and booksellers will find a way to survive.
In this story about second chances, transformations and the redeeming power of love, A.J. Fikry, the proprietor of Island Books located on the fictional Alice Island off the coast of Rhode Island, seems to have forgotten his store’s motto: “No man is an island; every book is a world.”
Devastated by the recent death of his lovely, vivacious wife, Nicole, who was the heart and soul of his life and the bookstore, A.J. has reverted to his cranky, irascible, snobbish and cynical nature. He drinks too much, subsists on frozen vindaloo dinners and is so off-putting that the regular flow of customers in his store has slowed to a dribble. It is as if he is marooned on his own little island of misery. However, three things are about to change his life: the arrival of a new publisher’s rep, the theft of a rare and valuable book and a foundling named Maya.
Amelia Loman’s first visit to Island Books is not propitious. A new sales rep for Knightly Press, she arrives to pitch her firm’s winter list. A.J. is not only put off by this “big dandelion of a girl,” but also by practically every type of book except literary fiction and short stories – a hard sell in every way. He’s so rude to her that he makes her cry. Nevertheless, Amelia, who thinks of herself as “the queen of lost causes,” continues to visit the store three times a year and their relationship eventually becomes one of mutual respect, and finally, love.
A.J. does not love the rare first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane,” which he finds in a box of books he buys at an estate sale for $5. However, he knows the book is worth at least $400,000 and plans to auction it off eventually to fund his retirement. One night, he takes the precious volume from its locked cabinet, but in a drunken stupor, leaves it on a table. The next morning, he discovers that “Tamerlane,” which A.J. has never gotten around to insuring, has been stolen.
Despite the efforts of Chief Lambiase, head of Alice Island’s tiny police force, “Tamerlane” remains among the missing. Chief Lambiase, another of the book’s charming characters, isn’t much of a reader, although – no surprise – he does enjoy crime fiction. Gradually, as they get to know each other, A.J. will turn Lambiase into a book lover, so much so that Lambiase starts a book group for his fellow cops. What really brings the two men together is the discovery of a 2-year-old, biracial toddler, abandoned in the children’s section of Island Books.
Perhaps “abandoned” is the wrong word. It’s more as if the mother has bequeathed her beloved Maya to A.J. In the letter she leaves with her baby, she writes: “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.” Soon, we discover that Maya’s mother is Marion Wallace, a young, unmarried, Harvard scholarship student, whose lifeless body washes ashore near the Alice Island lighthouse. Marion, and the as yet unidentified father, have given Maya a powerful set of genes. This child is precociously verbal and utterly adorable. Even the crusty A.J. cannot resist her, and improbably, he is allowed to adopt her.
Maya and A.J. have much in common. Both are of mixed race, both are highly intelligent and both yearn to be loved. In A.J., Maya finds the perfect father, and in Maya, A.J. finds a reason to live. At her christening party, he realizes that his love for her has “…completely gotten in the way of his plan to drink himself to death, to drive his business to ruin.”
Equally important, Maya’s presence rallies the island’s residents and brings them streaming into the bookstore to offer advice on child-rearing, donate baby clothes and accessories, and in the process, they buy books. Maya takes to just about everyone except A.J.’s sister-in-law, Ismay, who, A.J. thinks, somehow frightens the child. Unable to carry a baby to term herself, Ismay seems to find some comfort in helping the new father cope with the intricacies of child rearing.
The novel follows this varied cast of characters for the next 15 years. Not surprisingly, by the time she’s in high school, Maya shows signs of becoming a promising writer. To help her chart her path, A.J. creates a list of short stories he thinks she should read. His idiosyncratic reviews of these stories appear at the beginning of each of the book’s 13 chapters, and together, they form A.J.’s literary legacy to his daughter.
“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is old-fashioned. Warm, funny, touching and filled with love and hope, it’s a romance in which some secrets are kept out of guilt, some out of love. Like Maya, this book is impossible not to love.