August 23, 2015

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

One of the summer students at my previous job asked me, over soft-serve cones that we picked up from the ice cream truck on a particularly hot July afternoon, how I was able to plan for my current career, and how she should think about planning her next few years ahead. Never one to turn down the opportunity to dole out some advice—I’m still baffled when people turn to me for advice, particularly in light of the haphazard nature of my life trajectory—I told her that the best way to plan for the future is to not have a plan at all, but instead to prepare herself for the twists and turns that may come.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past thirty-three-and-a-bit years, it’s that nothing really ever goes according to plan, and that a life well-lived is one that embraces that notion of uncertainty.

For the title character of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, nothing really ever has gone according to plan. Mr. Fikry never planned to own a bookstore on a geographically-isolated New England island off the coast, or to have his wife pass away so early in life. He definitely never planned to lose his most prized possession (a early-edition collection of poems by Edgar Allan Poe), nor did he plan to find it replaced with another soon-to-be-treasured possession, two-year-old Maya, a book-loving child abandoned by her single mother in a bookstore.

Mr. Fikry’s best friend (and Maya’s soon-to-be-godfather) police chief Lambiase captures the sentiment well when he talks about timing, and how it interferes with any kind of plans we make: I’ve been a police officer for twenty years now and I’ll tell you, pretty much everything bad in life is a result of bad timing, and everything good is the result of good timing.”

Chief Lambiase, who begins the novel seeming like a bit of an oaf, quickly becomes an avid reader and confidant to Mr. Fikry. Amelia Loman, a book rep from publisher Knightsley who is immediately rebuked by Mr. Fikry, ends up finding home in his little bookstore. Timing dictates everyone’s interactions with each other, nothing goes according to plan, and for that, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is much richer.

The novel is remarkable for a few reasons. The first is that Mrs. Zevin’s language is evocatively simple: she is able to pack in immense feeling and nuance in a book that can be easily read in one sitting. The prose is the opposite of complicated; the motivations and emotions of each character are as complex as they can be.

The second is that Mrs. Zevin has written a book where the title character is South Asian without making the story about race. Mixed-race marriages and biracial children are normal in the novel, and not othered.” It is a reflection of today’s America (or, at least, some parts of today’s America), where we share our lives with people who don’t look like us without thinking twice about their differences.

It is abundantly clear that Mrs. Zevin loves books and booksellers, and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is both an ode to this love and a plea to make sure it doesn’t disappear. Mr. Fikry is often abrasive and arrogant, but through his snobbish veneer sits a passion for the written word printed on the page; that passion and love permeate throughout the entire narrative.

In the end, however, what is most striking is that Mr. Fikry’s story is essentially a love story, but doesn’t feel clichéd or share the often trite tropes of a romance. This is perhaps because this love story is not just about love between two people, but it is about love of the haphazardness of life. Nothing goes according to plan, and this deviation from plan is what makes life interesting.

That’s the message I tried to tell the summer student that day, over soft-serve ice cream cones: no matter how many plans you make, the best and worst parts of life will happen between those plans. Find joy and meaning in those moments between plans, and learn to love how life unfurls, and the plans will then only be a scaffolding upon which to build the decades ahead, instead of the building itself.

I didn’t express myself to that summer student as well as Mrs. Zevin does in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry; I should have, as Mr. Fikry recommends in the novel, borrowed words when our words are not enough. But hopefully I did remind her that life was haphazard, unplanned, and full of joy in the surprises, as long as we care to notice them.

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