Saturday, July 26, 2014

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

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin
Viking Canada, 2014
258 pages

This is a book best read by people who love words and stories. It's not a heavy story (surprising, given some of the subject matter) but it's heavy on the literary references and book world in-jokes. This is an easy, fast read, gently funny and somewhat predictable, which makes it a very comfortable summer read, even for someone like me, who generally doesn't read a lot of contemporary fiction because I like to keep reality out of my reading space.

A.J. Fikry is the owner of Island Books, a small literary bookstore on Alice Island. It's a quiet place in the winter, and a very busy place with tourists - the summer people - in the few sunny months. Things are not going the way A.J. planned; his wife, and business partner, was killed in an accident, and business is slowing, and A.J. is not the sort of person who can attract business the way his vibrant, socially adept wife could. But things are about to change for A.J. and his small circle of friends and acquaintances, with the introduction of a small, abandoned girl into his bookstore and his life.

I think if anything I'd maybe describe this story as a bit of a love letter to short stories, a mild statement on the value of sharing books, and a bit of a fairytale. It struck me that it managed to be neither maudlin nor manipulative, both very easy traps to slide into with a book like this, which I appreciate hugely. It wasn't terribly deeply examined either, so while some very difficult things happen to some of the characters, I'm not sure how much staying power this book has with me in the grand scheme of things. Weeks after I've actually finished reading the thing, I'm still enjoying the afterglow but maybe not as loudly enthusiastic as I was.

One thing that did strike me as I was reading was the way Zevin used multiple narrators. I am not usually a fan of this technique in the way Zevin was using it. Many times certain narrators have very important bits of information that other narrators don't, and because we care about what happens to these people and the relationships they have with each other, it becomes very tense, wondering who will find out what when and exactly what the fallout will be, and suspecting it will be very unpleasant for everyone involved. However, I think because of the way Zevin handles her characters, which is gently, I trusted her. The tension was there, but not overwhelming, and left space for enjoying the other aspects the story. Namely the literary references and the book world in-jokes.

Also, her foreshadowing is pretty clear. The ending, though not its specifics, is telegraphed, and I saw it coming. I was supposed to. I appreciated this as it meant nothing was a huge surprise (or not much) and it occurs to me that I'm not wild about being surprised in books, at least not about some things. At least not in the usual course of things.

It's not a remarkable book, but it's lovely and charming and - I've used this word already a couple times, but it fits - gentle. It's funny and if it treads lightly, that's okay by me. A recommended speedy, very readable summer book. Book clubs will likely get some mileage out of it, though hard to know how much. It might be fun to pair a couple of the short stories that form the backbone with the book; the Flannery O'Connor alone packs a more visceral punch than the whole book, if you like that sort of thing.

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