The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Gabrielle Zevin

Algonquin Books


Despite the fact that he loves books and owns a bookstore, A.J. does not particularly care for writers. He finds them to be unkempt, narcissistic, silly, and generally unpleasant people. He tries to avoid meeting the ones who’ve written books he loves for fear that they will ruin their books for him. Luckily, he does not love Daniel’s books, not even the popular first novel. As for the man? Well, he amuses A.J. to an extent. This is to say, Daniel Parish is one of A.J.’s closest friends.

               from  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry


A book by, for, and about book lovers

Crotchety, cranky and cantankerous, thirty-nine year old A.J. Fikry is a curmudgeon before his time.

He has strong likes and dislikes, and among those things he doesn’t like are authors and readers. This could be a problem since A.J. is the owner of a bookstore on Alice Island in Massachusetts.

What he loves are books and stories, though here, too, he has his dislikes—a long list that fills an entire page, and includes postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, magic realism, chick lit, poetry, translations…

“I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred and fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie-tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying—vampires.”

The reader can cheer where one shares A.J.’s distaste (Yet another book about zombies and vampires? Oh, please!) and be appalled where one disagrees (No translations? Really? That leaves out a good chunk of world literature, A.J.—Like we’re supposed to read Dostoevsky in the original?)

He finds customers to be both a nuisance and a necessity.

Customer: “There was a book I read about in the New York Times Book Review. It had a red cover, maybe?”
A.J.: “Yeah, that sounds familiar.”

Along the way, there are ruminations on books and reading. (“Endings can be happy or sad, I don’t care anymore as long as it’s earned.”)

What is rather remarkable and a credit to author Gabrielle Zevin is that, in the course of her story, A.J. becomes a quite lovable and endearing character. Perhaps he appeals to the curmudgeon in all of us.

A.J. is a lonely man, embittered by his wife’s recent death in a car accident, and also by the theft of a rare copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane—He dislikes Poe, but still, the copy was very valuable.

And then his life changes one morning when he wakes to find a toddler left in his store, a two-year old girl named Maya—the Hindu word for illusion. At this point one hopes the novel isn’t slipping into magic realism because A.J. hates magic realism.

There is a story here, a kind of mystery that eventually links Maya’s appearance with Tamerlane’s disappearance, but the novel is really a celebration of books, and the enjoyment, enrichment and occasional enlightenment they can offer.

And the ending? Well, as A.J. might say, it’s earned.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (May 15-June 14, 2015.) Reprinted with permission.