To the Owner of This Bookstore:
This is Maya. She is twenty-five months old. She is VERY SMART, exceptionally verbal for her age, and a sweet, good girl. 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. I love her very much, but I can no longer take care of her. The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help. I am desperate.
– The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
Lately, I seem to be primarily reading (and therefore, writing) about murder, deception and other grim topics : Blood Will Out, Missing You, Ripper … yep, definitely a pattern starting to develop. So this time around, I was trying very hard to change trajectory and treat myself (and everyone reading this) to something different. I succeeded on that front, but in the process, I also managed to dive headfirst into a book that was sweet and charming and wreaked absolute havoc on my emotions. HAVOC. And I don’t even know exactly which emotions, precisely, because I’m all tangled up in a big wibbly-wobbly ball of feelings. Trying to parse them out, separate awwww! from *sniffle*, and analyze things rationally is just like letting a kitten play with a skein of yarn: tugging on one strand just yanks everything else with it, and you end up with a tangled snarl, one that’s worse than before. My brain hurts, my heart is slightly bruised, I surrender!
It’s amazing, really, how the right book has the power to utterly and completely knock your world off its axis, and leave you walking around slightly stunned. Everything else just seems faint and far away, and all the other people just keep going, as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. No, Jake, I can’t make a sign or ring up a sale or answer the phone right now, because I am in emotional turmoil, dang it! Every reader knows the feeling. You smile and nod and carry on superficially, but the whole time, you’re absolutely dying inside because a book just stabbed you through the heart with words. Painful, beautiful, treacherous words.
With The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, however, it’s a good pain … wow, I’m really starting to mix my metaphors here, but as much as you simply ache by the end, you’re also strangely uplifted. It’s just so overflowing with joy and love, even while tempered with the bittersweet tang of pain and loss; but then again, what would a book about people (real, honest people in all their beautiful, inexplicable complexity) be without that tinge of sadness? And it’s not just love for people, or places: what spoke to me most of all was the almost overwhelming love for books of all kinds and the written word in all forms. Not terribly surprising, considering the title character, and the legacy he leaves to everyone whose life he has touched.
A. J. Fikry is the owner of Island Books, the only bookstore on Alice Island. As the novel opens, his life is in utter shambles, in both the personal and professional sense. He’s a recent widower, has hallucinations about his deceased wife, typically ends the day by drinking himself to sleep, his bookstore is practically hemorrhaging money (and he really can’t be bothered to sell books anyway), and he is well on the way to completely isolating himself from the world; suffice it to say, he is definitely not in a good mental place at this point. To make matters even worse, his most prized possession, a rare collection of early Poe poems, has been stolen. He’s essentially drowning, just floundering his way through each day: he’s not even living at this point, merely existing.
His life (such as it is) is then turned completely upside down on the night when he comes back from his evening run and discovers that someone has left a little girl in the bookstore, a brief note of explanation pinned to her Elmo doll. Against all odds and expectations (including his own!), he keeps her. Raising a child is not something he can do on his own, of course, and so he finds himself opening up to the world, creating himself anew in the process, and having an incalculable impact on everyone on the island and beyond. Granted, it’s a plot that bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Silas Marner (ok, my knowledge comes solely from faint childhood recollections of Wishbone – no judgment, please, it was a fantastic show) but the journey A. J. makes is so enjoyable that you honestly don’t care.
I blasted through the book in just a few short hours, absolutely enthralled, and as a result, I’m fairly certain I missed quite a bit: there’s a lot more to this book that you might think from a quick plot description. It’s full of hidden gems, phrases and descriptions and bits and pieces, everything tucked away underneath the marshmallow-y surface, all deliciously sweet and delightfully seductive and deceptively simple-seeming. On the one hand, I desperately want to re-read it, to savor it anew and see what I skimmed past the first time, but on the other hand, if I do … I just might cry. I was barely holding it together as I finished, although I was smiling at the same time.
It’s an exploration, almost, into the very best of human nature, with all its vagaries and unpredictability, but never forgetting how flawed even the best person can be, and vice versa. The characters, all of them, seem to have a rare and enviable knack: that of somehow creating something good and wonderful out of unimaginable tragedy. Hold on, that last description isn’t quite accurate, simply because the tragedies in the novel are all too imaginable: the type of tragedy and sadness that we hear about and read about and experience every day, and yet is still truly earth-shattering when it comes. And yet, in spite of it all, the characters carry on and rise above, and in the process build something magical; indeed, something little short of miraculous.