Friday, November 18, 2016

The Storied Life of AJ Fickry

by Gabrielle Zevin
Viking     2014
272 pages   Fiction

Do you have definitive tastes in books that you read? Bookseller AJ Fickry certainly does. Here are his tastes: “I do not like postmodernism, post­apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be — basically gimmicks of any kind. . . . I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. 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 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.”

AJ Fickry owns a bookstore on the small (fictitious) tourist Alice Island along with his wife Nic, who was raised on the island. As the book opens, Nic has been killed in a car accident and AJ is drinking himself to death. One day he finds a toddler, Maya, in the children's book department at the store, and Maya changes his life forever. He becomes a parent. And it is in that moment that this becomes a novel worth reading. AJ becomes charming! Oh—and he meets Amelia, a book rep.

The book is not just as straightforward as that, and yet it is. This is a very simple story about life—and what happens when you were planning something else. One of the lovely things about the novel is that it involves very few characters—and all these characters are extremely well developed. The most revealing part of AJ Fickry's character are the little book blurbs that are attached to the beginnings of the chapters. The books he references are the foreshadowing of what is going to happen in each chapter. It was a delightful touch and kind of a little joke for bookies.

There is an aspect of gimmick in the novel that was pointed out to us by the English teacher in our book club meeting last night. And yet as I thought about it, gimmick may be part of the charm of the book, particularly because AJ Fickry hates gimmicks of any kind. Basically, he would hate The Storied Life... This, I think, is one of Zevin's inside jokes. She added the gimmicks purposefully to let us know how AJ would feel about the book she had written about him.

We had our book club meeting in a book store that was very much like the book store on Alice Island. Kazoo Books sits in a little neighborhood in Kalamazoo. It is filled with new and used books and is owned by a very gracious couple who let us drink wine and stay until long after the store closed. A fireplace in the corner made us feel cozy and warm, just like the book. The setting of The Storied Life... is the most important aspect of the novel, and the setting was the best part of our book club meeting.

Reading The Storied Life of AJ Fickry was the most comforting thing that could have happened following a week of feeling totally lost and out of sorts after the election. The Washington Post reviewer explains this sensation: "Everything is explained, and all the loose ends are tied up with a bow. A few genuinely grim moments (death appears frequently and suddenly) are leavened by the animating spirit behind the whole, a light tone marked by earnestness, a straightforward approach to love and joy, and a felicitous charm."

Many of Gabrielle Zevin's books are for young adults, and The Storied Life of AJ Fickry has that feel about it. Teenagers would enjoy it as much as their parents.

Gabrielle Zevin's website.

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