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

Who’s like to open a holy bookshop, like the one in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (originally published as The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry)? I surely would.

Gabrielle Zevin’s humour, elegance, and writing knowledge, make this book so real that we really feel like we live in Alice Island and we’re part of the magical world of Island Books, a bookshop that the character Amelia Evans describes as

[…] a holy place. With bookstores like this, I feel confident in saying that there will be a book business for a very long time.

A.J. Fikry owns a bookshop that he and his (deceased) wife bought when they were young. His grouchy and standoffish attitude is a frail disguise of a good, hurt man, who’s just forgotten how to open his (big) heart to life. One day, a young woman abandons her daughter at the bookshop, leaving a note:

To the Owner of This Bookstore: 

This is Maya. She is twenty-five months old. She is VERY SMART, exceptionally verbal for her age, and a sweet, good girl. I want her to grow up to be a reader. I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things. I love her very much, but I can no longer take care of her. The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help. I am desperate.

The toddler immediately steals the man’s heart, driving him to rebuild his life, to put himself out there and, above all, to love his job again. With a little help from the adorable police chief Lambiase, his sister-in-law Ismay, and the Sales Agent Amelia Evans, A.J. and little Maya turn Island Books into a place of light.

The novel, beautifully written, says a lot about contemporary book publishing, described with love and irony. Who, among the avid readers and the book publishing professionals, never lied about reading all the titles that a “true expert” is supposed to read? Or to prefer a “tiresome classic” to Harry Potter? Well, A.J. lied too:

Weirdly, A.J. thinks of Proust. Though he pretends to have read the whole thing, A.J. has only ever read the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. It had been a struggle to read that much, and now what he thinks is, At least I will never head to read the rest.

How A.J. is unfamiliar with the digital world, it’s not only clear when he expresses his disgust for e-readers, but also when Google becomes his only source of information regarding taking care of a child:

He Googles the questions: “What do I feed a twenty-five-month-old?” and the answer that comes back is that most of them should e able to eat what their parents eat. What Google does not know is that most of what A.J. eats is disgusting.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (originally The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry) is a wonderful and touching love letter for books, for all the people who, everyday, contribute to their existence, from publishers to booksellers, because each book is a world that can leave a mark in a person’s life in infinite different ways, according to what that person needs right there and then. We can all find what we’re looking for in a book: motivation, comfort, love, inspiration, courage, and so on.

Despite many foresee the “end of books”, I feel optimistic, like this book, because we still do need — maybe more than ever —these magnificent doorways to freedom.