I’m nearly a decade late to The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. It has been on my to read list since 2016 and got pushed to the top tier of the pile last year for the Read Harder challenge (as it does take place in a big way in a bookstore). Then I never got to it but seeing that there was a movie adaptation out I decided to get my proverbial act together and dig into the story.
The book tells the story of the titular thirty-nine-year-old widower who is at the end of his rope. He had started his professional life with noble ideals, but the realities of life after his wife’s death and coping with a struggling business just shows him all the ways the world does not conform to the way he hoped it would be. On top of everything else his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. A.J. is isolating himself from all the people of his community —from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude.
A.J. is not the most likely romantic hero (although he would fit right into lit fic): he is cranky, he drinks too much, and he is depressed. But the mechanics of the story that Zevin puts into place bring A.J. back to a version of himself. He is given the opportunity to try again, but in a new way with a new goal. Once the big thing happens in the story, we are taking part in a tale of transformation and second chances, an affirmation of why we read, and why we love. Because besides being the story of a man who adopts a little girl who is abandoned in his bookstore and then begins to open himself back up to life it is also a love letter to the joys of reading. Each chapter begins with the title of a short story or a book and a note from Fikry describing what he likes about it. Zevin sets about introducing each character by what they read, allowing the reader in us all to make our own personal connections.
But I didn’t love it. It is a bit too on the nose for me right now. If it were a capital R romance that would be one thing, but it isn’t. The romance itself, once it settles in, wasn’t particularly gripping. While all the literary allusions worked for me (and I’m sure there are many I missed entirely) the fact that it was wrapped up so neatly, and that Fikry’s end is the end left me with a sour feeling.