The Storied Life of A.J. Fickry by Gabrielle Zevin is the best piece of literary fiction I’ve read in a long time. Maybe ever. And it’s appropriate that I post this review on Father’s Day, since it hit me as I was reading that it is about me and my daughter. That is, if we were both black. And I was the widower. And I owned a little bookstore on an island off of Massachusetts. And she was abandoned in that bookstore at the age of two for me to raise. Other than that, it is practically a biography!
But I digress.
A.J. Fikry is that cantankerous, irascible widower-bookseller. Still grieving the loss of his wife at far too young an age, he takes a second hit when his most valuable possession — not to mention his retirement plan — is stolen from his apartment above the store: Tamerlane and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe, one of the rarest first edition in American literature. But then Maya — the aforementioned baby — comes into his life, and his life is again turned upside-down, this time for the better.
Given the setup, Fikry could have veered easily into sentimentality, but Zevin deftly treads the fine line between poignant and sappy without losing her balance, thanks to some damn fine writing. For instance, she shifts viewpoints from time to time to give the reader a fresh perspective. This is from a chapter told through the eyes of the then-three-year-old Maya:
In the evening, A.J. changes his shoes, then puts her in a stroller. It is getting to be a tight fit, but she likes the ride so she tries not to complain. She likes hearing A.J. breathing. And she likes seeing the world moving by so fast. And sometimes, he sings. And sometimes he tells her stories. He tells her how he had a book called Tamerlane once and it was worth as much as all the books in the store combined.
Tamerlane, she says, liking the mystery and the music of the syllables.
“And that is how you got your middle name.”
The most important character, Island Books, never gets a chapter to tell its story. Which I suppose is a good thing. A little anthropomorphism goes a long way. And while Fickry is an ode to books — the real kind, with ink on paper pages — it is more than that. At its heart it is about imperfect people who love books — and each other — imperfectly.
Well done, Ms. Zevin.