Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

I read this book because my mother-in-law recommended it after she read it in a book club and then my uncle bought it for me off of my birthday wishlist. There are reasons why this book would jump out at me, anyhow: it’s about books, essentially. It is peopled with writers, authors, bookstore owners, booksellers, English teachers, and of course, books. In fact, each chapter begins with a note on an actual short story and I wondered if it would add to my experience to read these short stories as I went. Wouldn’t that make a cool book club project? Read the short story and the chapter for the club meetings? I happened to have the first short story—“Lamb to a Slaughter” by Roald Dahl—in a collection on my bookshelf, so I read it before reading the first chapter. While it still might be a good way to book-club this book, it is not necessary for reading it, or even particularly enriching to that experience. The short stories, even the notes on them, didn’t seem to enhance the story in any way. Even what the notes reveal about the plot is a little premature, sometimes.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (I find his name, first and last, to be awkward, by the way) by Gabrielle Zevin is basically about an old-fashioned bookstore on a small island near Boston. A.J. is the owner of Island Books (which is another strange name choice, and not the only one), a middle-aged, recently-widowed cranky-pants snob who is drinking himself into a hole filled with TV dinners and discarded running shoes. There are at least two people in his life who sorta keep him afloat until a few more wander in and we have literary take-off. For some reason, the main plot in this book is considered a spoiler, so I can’t really tell you about it, but a bookseller, a police officer, a toddler… they all enter and of course, in the end, save Fikry from himself. Believe it or not, this thin volume covers like fifteen or more years, which I think might be one of the main issues. If perhaps, Zevin had narrowed in on a more slender time frame and then given some backstory? Even a couple flashbacks? Well…

I think this book is okay. (Warning: should you think it’s going to be cozy, it totally reads that way except for the swearing and, more to the point, the extremely casual sex. Like sex actually means nothing in this book and middle-aged New Englanders fall into bed easier than the cast of Seinfeld. They also die off at an alarming rate.) I enjoyed reading it, but I was sometimes uncomfortably aware of its faults. What are its faults? It is a little corny. Some people like corny. The characters have very little physical description and then something about them comes out of the blue in like the last chapter. (How confused can we get about race in this book without it ever even becoming relevant?) The story lacks depth: it’s just too fast and slick. Likewise, the characters lack depth, at least in their relationship with the reader. The setting, too. Very quick and slick, all ‘round. Everything was very neat, very tied up with a big, beautiful bow and it was predictable enough that you didn’t even feel the tension of the struggles or pain. I didn’t shed a single tear (though I did laugh occasionally) because I wasn’t even close to being invested enough, and it wasn’t for a lack of wanting to be: the world of Fikry is a dream world for all us book nerds. And yet it was just a flippant little story, not a soul-searching excavation.

And perhaps most of all, this is the kind of book that is about a type of genius. All books about a type of genius run an especially high risk of being bad, because the author runs the risk of sounding like they are not the ones to be writing about this type of genius. Or, perhaps, any genius. I mean, Fikry is a high-level snob, so his taste has to be spot-on, and his author would have to be extremely well-read with a very wide knowledge of literature. And then Maya is a most precocious child and throw in a few professional book-nerds… Mostly about Fikry, though, I wasn’t sure I always believed the portrayal of him as a book snob of the highest order. The voice wasn’t trustworthy, to me, but I did see at least one review, I think in the Washington Post, that said Zevin was spot-on with all the titles that she throws around. Maybe I felt untrusting because of the few times the author actually explained a joke, which a man like Fikry would never deign to do, and I thought, oh no you didn’t.

While the makings of a great beach read are all there—the story itself had great twists and turns—I found it to be lacking in execution, which is awkward when the book is about books and writing. (I saw a few reviewers complain about the included short story, which was supposedly a winner of a prize, and I agree that it was… odd.) I wanted to like The Storied Life. There were some moments when I thought, “I like this book.” But there were more moments when I wondered, “Am I just telling myself I should like this book?” I loved the back side of the bookish life, the literary references, the charming New England island life and most of all the apartment upstairs from a book store!!! But in the end, all the bells and whistles, including the third-person present tense POV (!), didn’t a great novel make. And for that assessment, I would like to say sorry to my mother-in-law, who is no doubt reading this review. I certainly would have chosen this book for me too (no matter which of the six covers I saw (again, !)), because it has so much to charm and to snag all us bookish types. But for me, in a strange combination of trying too hard and not trying hard enough, it felt too thin to make me fall in love.

In the event that you want to read this book anyways, perhaps as a front for getting through some short stories in your book club, here is the list of short stories:

  1. “Lamb to the Slaughter,” Roald Dahl
  2. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” Bret Harte
  4. “What Feels Like the World,” Richard Bausch
  5. “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor
  6. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County,” Mark Twain
  7. “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” Irwin Shaw
  8. “A Conversation with My Father,” Grace Paley
  9. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” J. D. Salinger
  10. “The Tell-Take Heart,” E. A. Poe
  11. “Ironhead,” Aimee Bender
  12. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Raymond Carver
  13. “The Bookseller,” Roald Dahl

QUOTES:

“She is not vain about her looks and she certainly doesn’t value the opinion of Boyd Flanagan, who hadn’t really been talking to her anyway. She is just his most recent disappointment” (p8).

“He picked up [cross country] mainly because he had no skill for any other sport aside from the close reading of texts” (p47).

“A.J. has never changed a diaper in his life, though he is a modestly skilled gift wrapper” (p50).

“The most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything.  / No, the most annoying thing about it is that he’s even started to like Elmo” (p76).

“’I’m a romantic person, but sometimes these don’t seem like romantic times to me’” (p99).

“’I’ve been a police officer for twenty years now and I’ll tell you, pretty much every bad thing in life is a result of bad timing, and every good thing is the result of good timing” (p104).

“He wants to take a picture, but he doesn’t want to do the thing where you stop to take a picture” (p110).

When did I get so negative?, Ismay wonders. Their happiness is not her unhappiness” (p162).

“After many years of hosting the Chief’s Choice Book Club, Lambiase knows the most important thing, even more than the title at hand, is food and drink” (p201).

“’You must keep up with the times,’ she continues. / ‘Why must I? What is so great about the times?’” (p216).

“From his point of view, the only thing worse than a world with big chain bookstores was a world with NO big chain bookstores. At least the big stores sell book and not pharmaceuticals or lumber” (p216).

 “His heart is too full, and no words to release it. I know what words do, he thinks. They let us feel less” (p250).

“’You tell a kid he doesn’t like to read, and he’ll believe you,’ Ismay says” (p254).

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