One of the supporting characters in The Storied Life Of A.J. Fikry is a novelist who’s constantly disappointed that none of his later works are as popular and well received as his debut. If his plight is a reflection of Gabrielle Zevin’s own insecurities, she doesn’t need to worry. Her third outing for adults is her best yet, combining the best parts of the whimsical Margarettown and the grim and political The Hole We’re In to craft a beautiful story about getting a second chance at love.
The title character is a cranky bookstore owner in the small town of Alice Island, where he primarily caters to tourists in need of beach reading. He’s become entirely unmoored by his wife’s death in a car accident but is jarred out of his quotidian rut—eating frozen meals and drinking too much wine—by a pair of events: A rare book he’d planned on selling to fund his retirement is stolen, and a toddler is abandoned in his store by her desperate mother.
This is a very self-aware novel. A panicked Fikry laments to the town’s police chief that he wishes he was living in a short story so his woes would be over quickly, but he suspects his suffering will be novel-length. Later during a debate about whether not knowing the fate of a stolen object makes a crime novel feel less complete, Fikry weighs in that while he’d accept ambiguity, most readers would prefer to know. Naturally, The Storied Life Of A.J. Fikry discloses the fate of the lost rare book soon afterward.
Despite all the amusing skirting up to the fourth wall and the rather unlikely premise, Zevin manages to make Alice Island and its residents feel incredibly real. Her keen sense of humor is on full display when Fikry translates the “well-meaning townies” reaction to his losses into geeky literary references and indignant rants. Alice Island is a small place and the book makes every character it introduces feel interconnected, growing and changing together.
Zevin’s focus on growth is also embodied in Maya, who gets her own chapters demonstrating her metamorphosis from a curious girl learning to read to an exasperated teenager with aspirations of being a writer. The inclusion of a short story written by Maya about her mother is able to tell depths about that character’s emotions without requiring cumbersome scenes where she talks about her feelings. Zevin gets the language just right, making the section simultaneously a bit crude but beautiful to show Maya’s youth and potential.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry goes to pains to reveal that growth and change can happen at any age through regular references to a book about a man who doesn’t find love he’s in his 80s. While Fikry and the people around him may not wind up in the lives they thought they’d live with the people they first loved, they still manage to find real happiness.