Some novels take place over the course of a day; some cover several decades. How much story is an author able to fit into 350 pages or 500 pages or 750 pages? How much they can develop their characters so the reader feels like they are real people? These questions point to the magic and the mystery of writing. A reader might pause on page twelve and wonder, How do I already know so much about these people? How did the author do that? Or the reader might be fifty pages in, thinking, Nothing has happened yet, but I sure do know a lot about nineteenth-century London. Some writers are economical; some are expansive. Either kind of book can be powerful.
Gabrielle Zevin does a lot with a little. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is 272 pages, and it covers about sixteen years. A.J. is a widower and a bookshop owner on Alice Island; he has just told off a new sales rep, Amelia Loman, and is proceeding with his plan to drink himself to death when he discovers two-year-old Maya in his shop, accompanied by a note. Soon afterward, Maya’s mother’s body washes up on the shore, and instead of handing the baby over to social services, A.J. decides to keep her.
A.J. does the paperwork and jumps through the necessary hoops off-screen, as it were, leaving the reader to enjoy Maya’s non-christening christening party in the bookstore. Because of Maya, A.J. becomes involved in the life of the town in a way he never did before; though his wife Nic was an islander, A.J. himself was perceived as an outsider. He emerges from his shell, becoming friends with the remarkably kind and sensible police chief, Lambiase, and forging a relationship with Amelia. (Again, they surmount some practical obstacles – i.e., the inconvenience of her living on an island when her job involves so much travel – off the page.)
“Shelf-talkers” for short stories serve as section dividers. These are addressed not to the reading public, but to Maya; the reason A.J. is writing these becomes clear late in the book. Maya’s history is also revealed: Lambiase discovers it (along with the valuable copy of Tamerlane that went missing from A.J.’s apartment just before Maya’s arrival) not through detective work but when he begins to date A.J.’s ex-sister-in-law, Ismay, after the death of her husband.
The characters in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry are at once easy to slot into roles, and more complicated than they appear. Books and stories play a powerful role in all of their lives, and there is a good deal of book-related wisdom throughout this novel, delivered with a light touch. “We are what we love,” A.J. finally concludes. Most people who love books (and especially those who have ever dreamed of living in a bookstore) will like this one.