Archived Reading Room

A story that makes one look differently at life

bookLike some other readers I know, my taste in books these last 20 years or so has shifted from fiction to non-fiction, especially history, biography, and literary studies. I still follow certain novelists — Anne Tyler, Pat Conroy, James Lee Burke, and others — and still review novels for this paper, but find that works of fiction simply don’t appeal as much as when I was in my twenties and thirties, when I read stacks of novels and poetry.

Yet every once in a while a story will find its way into my hands whose voice and plot and characters whisk me back to those days when the novel for me was a magical realm. When this happens, when some beguiling literary sorcerer throws golden dust into my eyes, I push aside work and sleep, and fall again under the spell of the novel.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014, 260 pages, $24.95 hardcover, $14.95 paperback) bewitched me for two days during a week of February snow. Here Gabrielle Zevin tells the story of A.J. Fikry, a curmudgeon on the cusp of middle age, a man whose wife has recently died, whose Alice Island bookshop is going belly-up, whose most valuable book, a first edition of Poe’s Tamerlane, has been filched. In short, A.J. Fikry’s closest companions when we meet him are gloom and despair.

Nevertheless, A.J. has some guardian angels watching over him: his sister-in-law Ismay, wife of a philandering novelist who tries again and again to get A.J. to reengage with the community; Police Chief Lamiase, who watches over A.J. and eventually becomes a friend; and Amelia, the new book rep, who begins to break through the protective shell A.J. has built around him.

But it is the arrival of a special gift that first begins to work a change in A.J.’s spirit. To describe the gift would spoil the story for some, but with this event A.J. gradually realizes that life has more possibilities and more promises than he had ever realized. 

So, you may ask, where’s the charm? Where’s the magic?

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Well, first I need to tell you that I am a sucker for literary stories, particularly for stories set in a bookshop. Having once owned a bookshop or two, and having loved bookshops my entire life, I was entranced by Zevin’s descriptions of the shop, its customers, and its eccentricities. Her love of literature shines on every page. There are numerous discussions of authors, and Zevin begins each chapter with some literary observations by A.J. written to a person he loves. (One of the more humorous parts of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry occurs when A.J. inspires Chief Lamiase to become more of a reader, and the Chief then founds a book club for the police department).

Next, throughout the book Zevin again and again brings a whimsical humor to the story, an old-fashioned brand of humor without today’s snarkiness. At one point, for example, A.J describes Flannery O’Connor’s blood-chilling short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” as a “family trip gone awry.” 

There is also much wisdom to be found as well in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. At a wedding, one of Amelia’s friends reads this passage from The Late Bloomer, a fictitious book both Amelia and A.J. loved:

“It is the secret fear that we are unlovable that isolates us, but it is only because we are isolated that we think we are unlovable. Someday, you do not know when, you will be driving down a road. And someday, you do not know when, he, or indeed she, will be there. You will be loved because for the first time in your life, you will truly not be alone. You will have chosen to not be alone.”

In On Moral Fiction, a book which caused a literary war 30 years ago, John Gardner wrote that “the traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold of, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us.”

And this is the final enchantment of Zevin’s story. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry makes readers see that they too are living storied lives. This is a novel that makes the reader see the world a little differently, that inspires a sense of goodness without a whit of excess sentimentality, that pushes us to become better people. 

Highly recommended.


Recently a friend gave me Jan Karon’s Patches of Godlight: Father Tim’s Favorite Quotes: The Mitford Years (Penguin Books, $17). Though I am not a follower of the Mitford series — I read the first long ago and recently reviewed the latest, Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good — Patches of Godlight is a collection of quotations from philosophers, theologians, poets, and humorists collected under the guise of the fictional Episcopalian priest, Father Tim Kavanagh. (The occasional comments penned by Father Tim are amusing).

This collection, which includes many adages and quotations unfamiliar to me, would make a fine gift for a graduation.

(Jeff Minick is a teacher and writer. His novel, Amanda Bell, is available at local bookstores and at Amazon. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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