The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

9781616203214_p0_v2_s260x420Gabriells Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry vicariously fulfills the dream of many readers to own a bookstore in a small town, where being able to read all day and talk about books, trumps profits.  With clever references to familiar books and pithy quotes from favorite authors, Zevin offers a handy resource of good reads along with a quirky love story that will charm you as she follows a recognizable formula for second chances.

Both A.J. and his wife, Nic, are literary beings who have forsaken the grueling years they could have dedicated to writing their dissertations to open a bookstore in a small town off the coast of Massachusetts, accessible only by ferry. After Nic dies in a car accident, A. J.’s life follows the usual pattern of despair – until two seemingly unrelated occurrences change his life forever: his valuable first edition of a rare Edgar Allan Poe book is stolen, and a toddler is abandoned in the stacks of the store’s children’s books.  Zevin follows up with a slow-moving romance connecting A. J. to a publisher’s rep, a plot twist involving his dead wife’s sister, and humorous episodes as A.J. revels in his new role as father to the precocious young girl left in his store.

The story has the pace and flavor of a “Major Pettigrew” or Beginner’s Greek, with characters who don’t fit the mold and a story line that easily moves from slight mystery to poignant moments and satisfying resolution, with lots of bumps along the way.  The ending is contrived and not as happily-ever-after as you are led to expect, but I enjoyed this fast read about redemption through books – a good one for book lovers.

Related Books 

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Next to Love

Ellen Feldman’s novel Next to Love could have more appropriately been named “after the war” as she examines the lives of three American women whose men served in World War II.  As the story slowly develops from 1941 t0 1964, their lives in a small Massachusetts town become the microcosm for military families coping with the effects of war’s loss and trauma.   Although the catalyst is World War II for Millie, Babe, and Grace, some of the personal applications could still be true today as embattled men return from war zones.

Best friends from childhood, the three women sustain their connection despite their different backgrounds and the men they marry.  At first the story has some of the flavor of Blake’s The Postmistress and Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.  If you liked reading those books, you will probably enjoy this one.

All three women have recognizable characteristics that type them, and Feldman neatly uses these to weave in the prejudices of the times as the years unfold: women forced to leave jobs for returning GIs, Jews kept from buying into elite neighborhoods or joining country clubs, the brewing Civil Rights unrest.  The focus, however, always returns to the personal relationships – the sustainability and changing nature of love in marriage and how war changes everything and everyone.

The Red Garden – Alice Hoffman

… for events are as much the parents of the future as they were the children of the past…(John Galsworthy)

I kept waiting for the events in Alice Hoffman’s The Red Garden to come together, connecting characters and historical incidents as she follows the town of Blackwell from inception to middle age.   Instead, her chapters become a series of short stories,  following each generation in this small town in the Berkshires with a leap into the next.   It really doesn’t matter if you remember the names of who was married, who died, or whose daughter married the one-legged man.  Each chapter could stand on its own, and Hoffman will mark them somehow if you need to know – with a strange name like Azurine or an other worldly gift like shapeshifting.  This is Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and Blackbird House.  You should expect strange, mystical, sometimes weird – but always fascinating.

Historically, Hoffman stays true to the time for each chapter – colonial hardships, Civil War trauma, the Depression, World War II – but never really lingers on the facts of that era; she uses history as a place marker.    Although I could suspend belief when reading about floating ghosts, bears becoming men, eels turning into women, red blossoms from yellow rose bushes, I found her purpose hard to follow and  her chapters seemed to stall in the middle of the book, some resembling children’s fairy tales – like Kate, the beauty, a kind friend to the monster beast poet in the woods.

Strong women sprinkle the narrative, beginning with Hallie Brady, the founding mother of the town, who communicates with bears and helps the small group of the town’s first settlers survive their first hard winter with bear’s milk.  Lots of messages here in stalwart women and brave children; many seem to reach a turning point into maturity at age ten; some are dead by 25.  No one character is revealed completely; rather, the book has a series of vignettes with a cast of characters – lots of heroes, heroines, and villains – not quite enough information about any of them.  Sometimes, the chapter would end with no resolution, until you’d find a grandson or niece in the next chapter.

Did I like it?  Alice Hoffman has a writing style that draws me in – simple, lyrical and soothing.  I can connect to her phrasing:

“Don’t worry, I’m not afraid of words…when you read, the time flies by…”

“A story can still entrance people even while the world is falling apart…”

and she talks of cake

The Red Garden is a change of pace – but not for everyone;  after I stopped trying to place the characters together and make sense of a plot, I lost my frustration.  When magic came into the stories, I was drawn in.  If you decide to read the book – like other Hoffman books –  just go with her flow and believe whatever she tells you.

And the red garden that can only grow bloody red flowers and vegetables in red dirt? It’s mystery from the beginning of the book returns in the next-to-the-last chapter with that title, and all is revealed – sort of…