Tuesday, February 17, 2015

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

First line: "On the ferry from Hyannis to Alice Island, Amelia Loman paints her nails yellow and, while waiting for them to dry, skims her predecessor's notes."

Scott Brick provides an incredible narration for Gabrielle Zevin's beautiful story of A.J. Fikry, a widowed bookseller who unexpectedly finds himself taking on the role of father when an infant girl is left in his bookshop.

Fikry, a bit persnickety by nature anyway, has been further hardened by the tragic death of his wife. His people skills are rough around the edges to say the least--his wife always provided the smoothing--and he has a tendency toward book snobbery. Not the best combination for a bookseller, but he squeaks by knowing he has in his possession a valuable copy of Tamerlane--an early collection of poems by Edgar Allen Poe. It will provide him a comfortable retirement when he's ready to give up his bookstore.

One night in a drunken state of self-pity, Fikry removes the Tamerlane from its locked case and toasts the book until he passes out into oblivion. When he wakes the next morning, the apartment above the bookstore is spotless and the Tamerlane is gone.  Horror number one introduces Fikry to the island's police chief, Lambiase.

Shortly after the fervor from the theft of Tamerlane dies down, an infant is left in Fikry's bookshop with a note asking Fikry to take care of the little girl. Her mother no longer can, but she wants her daughter to grow up around books. Horror number two introduces Fikry to Maya. And when Maya's mother is found dead from suicide, Fikry can't bring himself to let the small girl go off into the unknown of the child welfare system, so he sets the adoption process in motion and becomes a single father.

Finally horror number three comes when Fikry is stuck with nothing else to read but a memoir called The Late Bloomer, a book he berated the sales rep for even suggesting to him. When he discovers that he actually likes the book--a la horror #3--Amelia Loman enters his life.

A small mystery in the theft of Tamerlane exists in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, but the novel is actually a love story. A love story in many different dimensions and levels. It's funny and serious and sad and extraordinary. Scott Brick not only captures all of that but he adds the color of perfect performance to it. Listeners will hear the softening of Fikry's heart and the expanding of his mind.

The pacing of the narration creates the atmosphere and the setting. Alice Island is remote and sparsely populated. The slow and deliberate reading from Brick embodies that casual, unhurried way of life for the islanders.

Each character has a distinct sound, and dialogue is especially enjoyable since it is both written eloquently and performed authentically. Even Fikry's thoughts are satisfying. His rather humorous reaction to his texting: "(He is only slightly mortified by that exclamation point.)" Or an observation I've often made about the mystery aisle of bookstores, "He looks across the spines, which are, for the most part, black and red with all capitalized fonts in slivers and whites."

Zevin fills the novel with references to all kinds of books, through chapter titles, recommendations in the bookshop and letters Fikry writers to Maya as well as myriad other ways she finds to sneak in allusions. Her love of books and her characters' love of books are treated with a reverence by Brick that further enhances the novel's dedication to reading.

I picked up The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry because several friends recommended it, and for that I'm grateful. I would not have wanted to miss this one. But I'm especially glad I opted to listen to the audiobook version. I believe it penetrated my soul a bit deeper with Scott Brick's wonderfully insightful interpretation.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is available in hardcover (ISBN:  978-1616203214) or trade paperback (ISBN: 978-1616204518) from Algonquin Books. The unabridged audiobook (ISBN: 978-1622313532), narrated by Scott Brick, is available on CD or as a download from Highbridge.


kristine hall February 17, 2015 at 10:03 AM  

Great review of what sounds like a great book. Thanks!

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