I dislike publicity that compares books by new authors to established, popular books, because the comparison is so often misleading. I’ve seen The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry compared to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. The similarities are a certain lightness of tone, the presence of book clubs, and the setting on an island. Otherwise, there is no comparison between the novels. I should add that I didn’t have much of an opinion of “Guernsey.” I like this novel much better, but the comparison almost made me decide not to try it.
A. J. Fikry is a recently widowed bookstore owner when the novel begins. He is normally somewhat of a curmudgeon, but he is also having difficulty coping with his wife Nic’s death. The book actually begins with Amelia Loman, the new account manager for Knightley Press, who has made the trip from the mainland to meet with him. He has forgotten their appointment and refuses to discuss any of the books on the winter list.
Aside from his wife’s death, things are not going well for A. J. He is drinking too much. Without Nic around he’s doing a poor job of managing the store. Then one night when he forgets to lock up his only rare book because he’s been drinking, it is stolen. He had planned to use the book as his nest egg after he drove the book store out of business, but the police can find no trace of it.
After A. J.’s book is stolen, he decides there is no point in locking up the store. When he comes back from a run, he finds a toddler in his store with a note from the child’s mother saying she wants Maya to be raised around books. It is the beginning of the weekend, so A. J. agrees to take care of Maya until social services can come out to the island on Monday. You may guess that by the end of the weekend, he does not want to give the little girl up and his life is changed.
Zevin writes in a breezy third person. Partly because of the style, this novel seems to be the type that will be full of quirky characters, but it isn’t really, just nice ones who seem realistic.
Each chapter begins with a commentary on a short story, which A. J. has written for Maya. Zevin also inserts the occasional literary allusion or joke. One playful element is the reuse of names from works of literature. In a more extended joke, Amelia disappears from the book for quite awhile after the first chapter, so that when A. J. says this
You know the kind of book I’m talking about, right? The kind of hotshot literary fiction that, like, follows some unimportant supporting character for a bit so it looks all Faulkneresque and expansive.
we think the book is being self-referential. But Amelia returns and becomes an important character.
I liked this novel. It deals playfully with literature if that appeals to you, but I just plain liked the characters. The novel is occasionally amusing and ultimately touching. It is both intelligently written and light in touch.