Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin

Book lovers are a persnickety bunch. We're passionate about what we love, and such passion also makes us opinionated. For that reason, I think authors of novels about book-loving have a hard time. They have to effectively capture the love of reading with a plot and in a writing style that's worthy of such love itself. In this regards, The Storied Life bombed for me. A mediocre beach-read feel-good plot with a generic pop-lit style just can't convince me that its characters love books as much as I do.

The book centers on the life of bookstore owner A.J. Fikry, recently widowed (though not old). We're told he's cranky and asocial, though his behavior is never especially bad in the book. One evening he discovers a 2-year-old girl named Maya has been abandoned in his bookstore, and she's wearing a note asking A.J. to care for her. Because this is a novel, the local police agree to let A.J. care for her for the weekend until social services can arrive. He wants to care for her... for some reason (not really clear because isn't he supposed to be all cantankerous?). He takes her for the weekend (one of my favorite parts of the book is him Googling how to do everything--i.e. "How does an adult man bathe a two-year-old girl without being a pervert?") and of course falls in love, and a chapter later A.J.'s adopted her. Now, this whole process is made easier by the fact that Maya is mature and precocious and perfectly well-behaved. Also, she seems totally unfazed by the fact that she's lost her mother (who committed suicide).

So A.J. raises Maya in this idyllic independent-bookstore-on-a-tiny-island life. And, do you remember book sales rep Amelia from the first chapter? The one A.J. was cranky to? (remember how cantankerous he is?) Well, A.J.'s in love with her. And they start a romance hindered by the fact that it's darn difficult to get to the island (you have to take a ferry!). Will true love ever prevail? But, don't worry, A.J. and Amelia overcome that insane obstacle and get married. Like Maya, Amelia is basically perfect except that she's not traditionally pretty (really, that's her one flaw). Oh, and of course Maya and Amelia totally adore one another.

The book continues through Amelia's young adulthood, ending in sweet tear-jerking fashion. Any of the real issues--like why Maya's mother committed suicide; the truth about Maya's father--are fairly skimmed over. And the pace felt off. I think Zevin was attempting to mimic a short story style (A.J. talks regularly about liking short stories) by showing discrete episodes from A.J.'s life, but such a structure means important elements of the story are skipped over. Instead, random points are emphasized but never go anywhere. For example, Amelia talks repeatedly about how difficult her mother is; we finally meet her and she has maybe one line (and, sure, it's a bit cranky), but the she never appears again. So who cares?

Worst of all, the characters in the novel all love books, but such love seems generalized ("I love bookstores!") rather than rooted in a real discussion of literature. The only part that seemed genuine (and, actually, my favorite part of the novel) were the short prologues to each chapter. In each, A.J. describes to Maya a favorite short story and explains why that story spoke to him.

If you like sweetness and happy endings, Storied Life is perfectly acceptable. If you like good literature, skip it.

Stray thoughts:
- It's interesting that A.J. is Indian and Maya is black since people of color are underrepresented in novels of this ilk. Their cultural backgrounds are almost never mentioned and play no part in the story, though. On the one hand, there's no reason why they have to be--can't that just be in the background like it is for white characters? On the other hand, exploring those aspects of the characters' identities (and how such identities play out with those around them) would have added an interesting layer to the story.

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