Book Broads • The Storied Life of AJ Firky

by Angie Eakley

Any work of entertainment that can accurately represent a vocation earns praise from those who do those jobs "in real life" because it happens so rarely. A prime-time soap set in a hospital has no burden of accuracy; its goal is entertainment, not instructional medicine. Books can often clear that hurdle because they don't have a 22 minute running time or a necessary, immediate, sustained fan base to exist. Nevertheless, when a book like Gabrielle Zevin's "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" comes along, anyone with a love of books and any experience in bookselling cannot help but fall in love with it.

(Alternate, less college essay style opening paragraph, taken verbatim from a text I sent to Portia on 5/3/17 at 6:22pm: "I just started The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and I love him and his snobbishness and this book is CHARMING AS FUCK!!")

I have wanted to read this book for a while. I still remember it being one of Portia's staff recommendations at the Nobe, there is a bookstore on the cover, and the cover title font is PREFECT. I had initially set this up as a meditation on the cliche of judging books by their covers; how we not only do that metaphorically in real life but how it's actually a decent method of selecting a literal book to read. You'll have to excuse me. It's been longer than I care to admit since I wrote an academic paper, but those instincts run deep.

A. J. Fikry is just shy enough of a straight up a caricature of a bookseller that even at his most unlikable, he's all of us. He's like a functional, realistic version of Bernard from Black Books. Bernard is endearing to so many booksellers because he is their id; Fikry is their ego. He knows his customers by what they read more readily than he knows their names. He knows what to suggest for them despite themselves. Lambiase may be a Deaver man, but Fikry knows he has it in him to work his way to Mosley, and it is for that reason that their relationship grows. He is appropriately snarky for the owner of an independent book store, and as a corporate retail bookseller I reveled in the catharsis of someone, even a fictional character, vocalizing the kinds of things I'd think on a constant basis. Zevin knows this, and each Maeve Binchy reference warmed my heart, because 10 years of bookselling and 3 times that of reading tells me everything I need to know about those ladies and their book club.

"Your first literary crush is a big deal," Amelia says. "Mine was John Irving."
"You lie," A.J. says. "It was Ann M. Martin."

"Fikry" is not solely a book for people who've worked in bookstores. It is a book for people who love books. The characters fetishize print books while grudgingly accepting the better qualities of e-readers (despite initial tantrums). It also centers on the idea that what you read is who you are. People choose books for all kinds of reasons, but each choice is akin to buying new clothes. What you read becomes a part of you, and whether that knowledge stays hidden like an unremarkable pair of jeans or broadcasts who you are (or more accurately, who you want to be) like an embellished sweatshirt from Forever 21, people choose books for a reason. Characters throughout the book are asked about their favorite, and their responses reveal more about them than they say.

"Amelia's mother, who is the size of a grasshopper and has the personality of a praying mantis…"

It almost goes without saying that a book about a bookseller that cuts right to the heart of any reader who has fought to remain calm while being asked to come up with the title of a book that "was on the radio the other day" or "is very popular" and has a cover that is "mostly blue" is beautifully written. So many of the characters define themselves by their literary tastes, but Zevin so accurately describes her characters in a non-literary way that you don't have to have physically smiled at the reference to "The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" to know everything about the people on these pages.

"A place is not really a place without a bookstore"

I generally don't like going into a book knowing anything about it. Between hearing or reading about new titles, familiarity with authors, and recommendations from friends, I have literally piles of books in my tiny apartment waiting to be read. That's not to say that the plot of "Fikry" isn't good or doesn't matter; it's wonderful. But I've leave it to the reader to discover its charms firsthand. I may be a little biased, but when lovable cop Lambiase says "Turns out a I really like bookstores. You know, I meet a lot of people in my line of work. A lot of folks pass through Alice Island, especially in the summer. I've seen movie people on vacation and I've seen music people and newspeople, too. There ain't nobody in the world like book people," I know I've found a book I'll identify with. And it's one that I absolutely love.

Post a Comment