Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

If you are reading a book review column, I assume you enjoy reading.  If so, it’s furthermore safe to assume that The Storied Life of A.J. Firky will have great appeal to you. As one reviewer claims “...this book is a love letter to the joys of reading.”   
Independent book sellers across the country are singing its praises.  It’s been called a romantic comedy, a spiritual journey, and a celebration of books: the people who write them, read them and sell them.  A.J. is of the belief that “You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question.  What is your favorite book?”

A.J. owns a small bookstore on the remote fictional Alice Island in the northeast. (Think Martha’s Vineyard). His bookstore is aptly named Island Books.  The sign above the door was for me like the saying, You had me at Hello. It reads, No Man is an Island, Every Book is a World.  When we first meet A.J. his world is not so good.  At age thirty-nine he has lost his wife in an accident. She was both his soul mate and business partner.  Book sales are down, his alcohol consumption is up and he is becoming more despondent and cantankerous by the day.  The final blow fate deals him is when someone steals his copy of Tamerlane, a rare and valuable edition of  Edgar Allen Poe poems.  This was his nest egg, his retirement, his security.  Now not only is his present situation miserable but it appears his future will be also.  He plods on doing what he does every day with a heavy heart and a cranky disposition.  As author Gabrielle Zevin describes him in an interview, “...he is a person who is at the end of his rope.”  Zevin’s philosophy is that reading can help us engage with other people, yet she purposely places A.J. on a island where he’s isolated physically, geographically and uses reading as a way to not engage with people.

Yet in the depths of his despair there is a delivery to the children’s section of his store that causes his life to take a turn.  While out for a run (he no longer locks his bookstore door because he feels there is nothing valuable left for anyone to steal) he returns to find an abandoned toddler in the children’s section immersed in the pages of where the Wild Things Are.  Beside the toddler is a well-worn Elmo doll with a note pinned to its matted red chest.  The note in part reads, To the Owner of the Bookstore:  This is Maya. She is twenty-five months old. She is very smart, exceptionally verbal for her age...and 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 but I can no longer take care of her.  Signed Maya’s mother.

A.J. is dumbfounded and takes Maya to the local police station where just a month ago he reported the loss of his valuable book to Police Chief Lamblase.  Lamblase sets a plan into motion for Child and Family Services to take the baby until the mother can be found.  But getting to a remote island, accessible only by ferry, in a storm on a Friday night is not the easiest thing to do. Lamblase suggests several islander families who might keep the baby until Monday but as the toddler clings to A.J., he agrees to keep her for the weekend.  By Monday morning, he is smitten and so begins the story of their life together.  It is one of the three love stories in this novel.  I won’t be a plot spoiler and discuss the other two. Also, there are a few mysteries to be solved: Who stole the book and where is the baby’s mother?

The island is small; there is not a large cast of minor characters but I found myself cheering for the entire motley bunch of them.  A.J.’s sister-in-law Ismay, the high school drama coach,  is unhappily married to a best-selling author, repeatedly unfaithful, who finds it hard to resist the groupies who attend his book signings.  Lamblase, the police chief, was never a reader but with A.J.’s influence becomes one, so much so that he starts his own book discussion group, Chief’s Choices.  And there is Amelia, the book publisher rep who A.J. rudely insults on their first meeting (it was during his cantankerous stage) and practically throws her out of his store when she knocks over an entire shelf of books.  

The theme, the power of stories in our lives, is carried out not only with A.J.’s personal story but each chapter is introduced with a short story title (A.J. loves short stories) and his reflections after reading each one. So we re-discover the likes of authors such as Roald Dahl, Raymond Carver, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger and Bret Harte.   But more importantly, we hear the little nuggets of wisdom A.J. imparts to his daughter, the intended recipient of his musings.  For example, his comments after reading The Girls in Their Summer Dresses (Irwin Shaw, 1939), A.J. writes, (for Maya) “Someday you may think of marrying. Pick someone who thinks you’re the only person in the room.”  If only every daughter were so fortunate to have a father who imparts such loving wisdom.

On a side note, I found it quite a co-incidence that the last book I reviewed (The Light Between Oceans by Stedman) also took place on a remote island where a baby arrives mysteriously.  The similarity ends there however.  Stedman’s story leaves us with an aching heart while A.J.’s story was best captured by one reviewer who said, “There’s joy in my heart and a skip in my step after closing the last page of this jewel of a book.”

I tend to agree with A.J. ...that you will know all you need to know about a person by how they answer that one question.   So don’t be surprised when I see you around the neighborhood and can’t resist asking, “What was your favorite book?” Just trying to get to know you.