“Hey A.J.,”she calls. “There is something kind of heroic about being a bookseller.”
When we first meet A.J Fikry, the recently widowed owner of the only bookshop on Alice Island, there seems nothing particularly heroic about him. He’s an irritable drunk who thinks he and his bookshop are probably too good for the island dwellers and the seasonal tourists—he’s pretty much your typical literary snob.
But then things become interesting. A baby girl was left on his shop’s doorstep—the helpless mother wants her daughter to grow up with books. The same night, a manuscript that is literally the grumpy bookseller’s own pension goes missing. And so the bookshop has to stay in business, and the owner gets a new daughter to care for.
I used to think there is no easier task to capture book lovers’ hearts with a quirky, well-read, good-willed yet grumpy bookseller, but only in retrospect do I realize how difficult it is to pull it off without an engaging and flowing plot, a whole cast of interesting and relatable characters, and fitting them altogether in a deceptively effortless way. Gabrielle Zevin manages to achieve all these with The Storied Life of A.J Fikry, and I thoroughly enjoy my time spent with A.J., Amelia, Maya, and detective Lambiase. No, I didn’t just enjoy my time. After three readings (my first encounter with this book was in Chinese, plus the first re-read in the original, and then another reread when I started selling the book as a bookseller myself), these characters have become so alive in my mind that to me, a publisher’s sales rep should be like Amelia, wide-eyed and charming but also strong-willed, whereas an independent bookseller should be like A.J., knowledgeable and picky but well-meaning.
Now, of course, working in the industry myself—especially in such a small market like Hong Kong—things aren’t so rosy. But it is precisely because of that I am all the more thankful to Miss Zevin for creating such a paradise for us book enthusiasts. In the end, the best books don’t just entertain or provide escapism, they renew your lens to look at the world with and give you hope. And we all need that extra thing with feathers, bookselling or not.
The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry pp.270
Algonquin Books April 2014