I’ve spent the past two days trying to figure out a way not to start this review with a sentence that includes the word “charming” or the phrase “heartwarming.” Those words are, in theory, compliments, yet they seem coated with the taste of disapproval or disdain in lots of circles. So here it is: Gabrielle Zevin’s “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is a fun, page-turning delight. It is charming — and I mean that in the most positive of ways.
A.J. Fikry is the cranky owner of Island Books. Cranky with good reason. His wife has died. His store is failing. A treasured book, which doubles as his retirement fund, has gone missing. To make matters worse, a young child has been abandoned in Island Books’ own literary version of the baby Moses. So while not technically a mystery, there is a lot to be solved. Who is the child? Who stole Fikry’s valuable edition of Poe poems? How can his store, and his life, be turned around?
Fikry is a great admirer of the short story, and each chapter in the book is named after a story that Fikry himself quickly reviews or summarizes. And so we get snippets from Roald Dahl, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor and J.D. Salinger. More than tributes, these brief passages provide Fikry an opportunity to philosophize on how his worldview is similar to or different from the story in question, and they frame each portion of the book very well.
This is set, mostly, in a small bookstore and is about a bookseller and the life that surrounds the store itself, so it would be easy for the novel to become a bit too “inside baseball.” Zevin’s greatest feat here may in fact be that she never crosses the line.
Yes, it’s about books and the power of stories. But it is not only for people who have spent time in creative writing workshops. Its strength is its very mainstream appeal. It is, at its most basic, a story about love and redemption with people and art. Fikry and his motley group of friends and family are easy to cheer for. Publisher Algonquin Books always carefully selects its fiction list and knows well that bookstores around the country will be excited to sell this one. Much like Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants,” this book could easily become a dark-horse bestseller. It is, after all, quite charming.
Hans Weyandt has sold books at a variety of Twin Cities bookstores for more than 15 years, including, most recently, Micawber’s. He loves novels of all kinds.