Believing in Books: Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry and thoughts on Books, Booksellers, and Anniversaries

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Zevin, Gabrielle. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2014.

How many of us have dreamt of having a bookstore? You know, one of those cosy places, the centre of the community, a place for poetry readings, a place with comfy chairs for reading, and possibly a cat snoozing in the window. You know, the sort of places that have just about disappeared to be replaced by the ubiquitous mail order giant that we all use for its convenience and speed.

As a total aside, is the fact that said giant chose to name itself after a tribe of female warriors fitting or somehow irking? I’m still puzzling that one.DSCN1318 - Version 5

The whole enterprise of buying books appears far more commercial than it did. Of course, books were always products to be bought and sold, but the bookstores of the past seemed to share an aura with libraries of being places of quiet and contemplation, places somehow above the lowly tarnish of trade. What a fine thing nostalgia is: books have been a business since at least the time they were sold in Old St. Paul’s churchyard.

So what does this minor rant have to do with The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry? Well, a bookstore in a quiet New England village on Alice Island provides much of the DSCN1318 - Version 4background to The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. A. J. Fikry, the owner of the bookstore, is a widower who does not like “ postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators or magic realism” and who rarely responds to “supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically, gimmicks of any kind” (13). He “has often reflected that, bit by bit, all the best things in the world are being carved away like fat from meat” (216). Would A. J. Fikry enjoy the book that bears his name?

On the one hand, Zevin’s novel is a traditional tale of love and loss, of love regained, unsolved mysteries, and of redemption. Not quite a comedy in its traditional literary sense but filled with comic characters, some perhaps verging on stereotype or caricature, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry captures and holds the reader’s attention rather as a whodunit does. On the other hand, one wonders whether or not A. J. might not condemn the novel as dependent upon gimmicks.DSCN1318 - Version 18

I suppose it rather depends on whether one condemns Ziven’s technique as gimmickry or appreciates her construction of the novel for its wit. The title itself is highly significant. The novel is many “storied” in terms of both plot and allusion. There’s A. J.’s own story and the story of his sister-in-law Ismay. There’s the mystery of the missing manuscript, the motif of the foundling child. Each chapter of the novel shares its title with a short story of the same name and is introduced by A. J.’s own summary and assessment of the original story. The following chapter then parodies or pays homage to the style of the original story. By the end of the novel, we discover that this technique is actually part of a framing device for the whole work.

In other words, then, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a very sophisticated novel, but it doesn’t oppress the reader with its own cleverness. It does raise all sorts of questions about the distinctions between literary fiction and other fiction and about the nature of the book business: questions, no doubt, close to the hearts of many of us.

At the end of the novel, I felt that Zivens is celebrating both literature and book stores. One of the many stories in the novel is the evolution of Island books from a “persnickety little” (5) bookstore to the sort of place that will ensure “there will be a book business for a very long time (257). Those of us who love books no doubt heave a heart-felt deo gratias for the continuation of the book business even as we have concerns about the DSCN1318 - Version 13changing nature of that business.

I admit to belonging to that group of people who agree with one of the characters in The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry “A place ain’t a place without a bookstore” (256). I am nostalgic for the kind of bookstore I described at the beginning of the post and particularly so for the idea of the snoozing cat among the stacks of books or on a sunny window seat. But time passes, and nostalgia is a very self-indulgent emotion. Stories are still stories, and ideas are still ideas no matter the format in which we meet them, and, in one medium or another, we will continue to discuss and review them.

Would I write these reviews quite so often if I didn’t have the blog format? I’m not sure. I’m still not sure even as I participate in it how I really feel about the virtual world. Today is the second anniversary of my blog, so I want to finish this post about a novel about books, bookstores and the people who love them by thanking all of you who visit and particularly those of you who follow my blog. Thank you, too, to those of you who tell me in one form or another that you appreciate what I write and have asked me to continue. I think I will.

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