I recently grabbed a copy of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin because I thought it might be a good fit for my long-distance book club. It sat, neglected on my Kindle app, until a few nights ago when I found myself the only awake in the house at 9pm. I had a lot on my mind, so I wasn’t ready for sleep, but it was cold enough that I wanted to get into bed. Enter the phone (generally my least-preferred method of reading a book), which allowed me to read under the covers without any extra light. I read until late into the night and ended up finishing the book the next morning after breakfast. What I still can’t decide is whether I loved the book or just liked it enough to keep reading once I’d begun.
A.J. Fikry is a recently-widowed bookstore owner without much going right in his life. The bookstore is struggling, he misses his wife, and the police have no leads in the case of his stolen rare collection of work by Edgar Allan Poe (which he planned to sell to fund his retirement). He is extremely particular about what he will stock on the shelves of his store, leaning heavily toward literary fiction and short stories, and is prone to generally grumpiness. I’ve heard this book described as a love letter to bookstores and book lovers, which sounds right up my alley.
The problem with online reviews is I can’t get them out of my head. I know better! I almost always wait to read reviews until after I’ve read the book, but sometimes I cave on my own rule. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is one such situation. I’m still struggling to separate my own reading experience with one particularly negative, though somewhat accurate, Goodreads review. The story had sweet moments and thought-provoking ones, but ultimately it failed to completely engage me. I wanted more depth, I guess; the story covers quite a bit of ground in the span of the novel. The characters were nicely drawn and the action was just believable to keep me interested, but it did sometimes feel like more of a laundry list of what we love about bookstores and less like an accurate portrayal of the life of a bookseller.
My very favorite part of the book was the beginning of each chapter. The title comes (in part) from A.J. Fikry’s notated list of the best short stories. Each chapter begins with the title, a quick summary, and why he is including it on the list. (It becomes clear as the book progresses what the purpose the list serves, but even from Chapter 1 it gives great insight into the titular character’s mind.) I found myself scribbling down the names of many of the stories I haven’t read and laughing (or nodding in agreement) at the analysis of the ones I’ve already read.
All in all, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was a lighthearted way to spend a long night reading, but I don’t know that I’d buy a copy to read again every year. I do plan to read through the beginning chapters before I return it to the library, however, because I missed some of the subtleties in the first part of the book. I would definitely like a list of the short stories that begin each chapter, however, along with his thoughts on each one. That is something I would refer back to often. (Edited to add: Every book mentioned or quoted in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is listed here. While not overtly full of spoilers, the list does end up giving quite a bit of detail about the books and its characters. Consider yourself warned if you choose to read the list before you read the book. Also, this list does not contain Fikry’s curmudgeonly annotations, which were my favorite part.)
The whole thing has me wondering what books and stories I would put on my list and why. Which books do I think are the best examples of particular writing styles or trends? That’s my favorite sort of question to ponder, and ultimately why I ended up giving the book a solid four stars.