Time for another little free library find! The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, is an adventure of a book and should make the book-lover in your life very happy. Each section starts with Fikry’s synopsis / critique of a short story, and as the story develops, we learn who the intended reader of these is. I won’t give it away just yet. Let’s start with the basics:
Characters: A. J. Fikry, recently widowed owner of an island’s only bookstore. He is your usual, misanthropic type, a bit snobbish about what is allowed on his shelves. Also, there’s Maya, a baby that one day is left behind at his store, with a note saying he is to raise her. And there’s Amelia, book sales rep for the publisher Knightley. She is enthusiastic about one book in particular and insists A. J. should read it, but he is put off by the fact that it’s a widower writing about losing his wife. Too close for comfort, though he doesn’t tell her that. When he finally reads the book, it’s not what he expected.
Also part of this novel: A. J.’s sister in law, her husband, who is a (failed) author and a pain in the back, a first edition of Poe’s Tamerlane, and two deaths.
Conflicts: What’s a man to do when a woman – seemingly at random – decides he should raise her child? Especially when he can barely take care of himself! Also, business isn’t going well – should he sell the place and move away? After all, the store was his late wife’s idea as much as his own, and she’s no longer there to keep him from being a misanthrope and to manage the shop’s supply of books people actually want to read. As if that’s not enough to think about, Fikry needs to decide whether or not he’ll admit to himself that he’s attracted to Amelia. As for Amelia – what does she want from life? Surely, a rude bookseller on a remote island isn’t part of her grand plan, right?
So as you might have guessed from the above, there are some of the usual tropes (grumpy, reclusive bookseller with poor self-care skills – think Black Books -, enthusiastic young book rep, love after loss, etc etc) and to be honest, that could have been a deal-breaker for me. Books that focus on love relationships usually don’t do it for me. However, I really enjoyed the book, and I think I can tell you why. That said, there may be spoilers in what follows, so don’t say you weren’t warned. The short, spoiler-free version is that this book functions on several meta levels, and it’s the shared knowledge / experience on those levels that made it work really well for me. (Example: Many of the stories / texts A. J. critiques are familiar, and his takes on them say something about him.)
____ potential spoilers ahead _____
I love that the relationship that develops here is so deeply rooted in books. At one point he says something along the lines of, “I wouldn’t want to read any book without knowing that you, too, are reading it.” – There’s something special about having someone you can share your reading with, your thoughts on the reading, and your criticism or enjoyment of it. And yes, of course he keeps the baby girl and raises her on the best books and stories he can think of. Maya becomes a very likable character early on and continues that way. Also, the ending. The ending lets you see the summaries / critiques that open each section in a new light.
____ end potential spoilers ____
This book makes for entertaining reading, and if you wanted to, you could use it as a springboard for more reading: lots of books are mentioned, also (of course) the texts referred to in the openings of every section. Because of some little free library serendipity, I happened upon From The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler (by E.L. Kingsburg) around the same time, so when it got a mention in this book, I decided to read that too. 🙂 Considering it is a children’s book, I still enjoyed it, and I liked the idea of one of the characters in the novel sharing that experience with me.
Zevin herself has a page on her website where you can track down many of the literary / bookish references in the novel (beware of spoilers though): https://gabriellezevin.com/ajbooks/ so that might be fun to do once you’ve finished the book.
(Btw, the book also exists with an alternate title: The Storied Life of A J Fikry, I’m guessing that The Collected Works of A J Fikry is the title for the UK market, since my copy was printed in London.)
The book can be enjoyed on many levels – it has romance, mystery, literary references, humor, conflict, deception – so I’m happy to recommend it to any and all who like to read.