Review: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikrey

I wasn’t very far into The Storied Life of A. J. Fikrey before I expected to hate it. Set on a small island off New England, a widower book store owner is presented with a set of unlikely challenges that push him back into the life of his small community with his only asset being his dormant love of books. It is perhaps the most twee set-up for a novel one can write, and I haven’t even mentioned the adorable, precocious moppet.  I don’t like twee, predictable books, but I liked this.

Gabrielle Zevin has done an impressive piece of writing here. Everything about the plot and the character summaries is predictable and right out of the first literary novelist’s playbook. And there are no tricks.  The plot never twists so much as it turns like a well lit country road.  While there is a pleasure seeing what’s around each bend, there are no sudden wrenches of the wheel, or hard leans to take a surprising turn.  The reader ambles along a conventional plot.

Without propulsion from the plot or novel skeletons for the characters, it’s hard to see what’s interesting about Fikrey.  Zevin writes beautifully.  The meat she puts on the bones of her characters turns them into interesting folks to spend time with, even if their CV’s are pedestrian.  There are not a lot of phrases that provoke fireworks here, but all the writing engages the reader, making them see the characters’ world as the characters do.  Whether our CV’s are unique or common, we are all the stars of our own lives and that’s the impression Zevin creates here.

In addition, Zevin’s love of reading and storytelling is evident throughout. Given the set-up, she wants to comment on how books and stories influence our society.  Though the environment cries out for blunt commentary, Zevin never quite overplays her hand.  She does create a world of readers – some of them unlikely ones – and just lets them speak.  The result is more heartfelt than preachy.

Taken together, all this results in a very unlikely thing: a hangout book.  I’ve heard a hangout movie described as one that you watch to spend time with the characters, not to see the plot resolve.  You can put a hangout movie on in the background and enjoy your favorite parts without focusing how the characters you enjoy get out of a particular jam.  Fikrey is very much that kind of book for me.

Strongly recommended.

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