Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A life made of stories

Perhaps our lives aren't really novels, as we might suppose. Perhaps they are short story collections. That suggestion comes through Gabrielle Zevin's popular novel published last year, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

The title character runs a small bookshop on a small island in New England. Short story collections don't sell well in his store, as in most other bookshops, but he favors stories, so he stocks them anyway. Zevin cleverly uses famous short stories, like "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," as chapter titles, the theme of the stories relating somehow with what's going on in Fikry's life at the time.

The novel opens with Fikry at 39, recently widowed and in a foul mood. Amelia Loman, 31, a publisher's rep, chooses this day of all days to visit Fikry and try to get him to order some books from her company's new catalog. It does not go well.

Yet there are other stories in Fikry's life. A woman leaves her toddler in the bookshop, then commits suicide. Fikry, deciding that since he is good at gift-wrapping books he ought to be able handle diapers, elects to adopt the girl, called Maya. He owns a valuable first edition of a book by Edgar Allan Poe, which is stolen from his store. The island's police chief becomes a friend after these two incidents and also develops into one of Fikry's best customers. The bookseller eventually gets another chance with Amelia and this time makes a good impression, ultimately leading to marriage. Maya grows up and thinks of becoming a writer. Fikry develops a rare cancer likely to prove fatal.

Some of the stories in the life of A.J. Fikry may seem a bit manufactured or contrived. I seemed to enjoy the first half of the book more than the second half. Yet it is a hard book not to like, or even to love, especially if you love books as much as the characters in this novel love books.

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