Tea and Tales: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

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https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-storied-life-of-a-j-fikry/gabrielle-zevin/9780349141077

We recently joined a second book club. Don’t ask me how I imagine I will read two books a month and keep up with bands, playlists, Storytime and art, but a friend recruited us and we enjoy the chance to see her, and the extra conversation topic the rest of the time. Last month’s book, the first I have had time to read properly, was The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Lloyd and I took in turns to read it aloud so that we could read it at the same time. I’m going to give away quite a lot about the plot and the characters of this book in the coming paragraphs, so if you want to read it for yourself, stop here.

A quirky, mostly charming easy read, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is full of chuckles for literature lovers. Each chapter begins with A.J.’s opinion of a short story, written as an often witty synopsis and review, and directed at his adopted daughter, Maya.

A.J. is a jaded cynic, lonely following the death of his wife, unpleasant to deal with for the publishing reps and customers who visit his book shop. His life is turned around when a twenty-four month old child is abandoned in his store. A.J. raises Maya, and through this experience, changes. He turns over a new leaf, for a long period which feels short to the reader, until he learns that he has a lethal brain tumour, and dies.

Summarised thus, the story sounds emotional with a punch in the guts to finish. However, some parts of the plot have a “too convenient” fairytale feel to them. For example. A.J.’s new love, who he is very cruel to on first meeting, is converted to good friend and then lover with very little interceding description of their meetings, making her seem unconvincing. A valuable item stolen early in the story is conveniently found just in time to be sold to pay for brain surgery, but confusingly, given the trouble gone to to make this plot device work, the surgery is of little help.

The literary references and the recurring “meta” sense of story-within-a-story sometimes made me smile and other times felt a little forced and heavy-handed. It’s fun when A.J. is recognising his own similarity to characters in stories, and using this to make fun of situations or himself. It’s amusing when he expresses interesting opinions on books and stories we may know. It’s more like hearing puns from your dad when the author has the police book club discussing the story of a stolen violin right before the resolution of the theft in A.J.’s story in a very similar manner. For the less literary-minded, the volume of literary references might feel a bit as though the author is looking down her nose at them.

These things aside, the book was a fun light read that I would have enjoyed almost entirely had the ending been more satisfactory. It’s hard to decide if the story goes on too long or doesn’t go far enough, but without giving the entire plot away, I felt the characters we cared most about were left behind with only a cursory glance, and information we didn’t really need was handed to us instead, leaving us frustrated. The author shies away from making the sad ending too emotionally intense, and thus leaves us feeling that we aren’t really feeling enough.

By far the most enjoyable parts of this book were the humorous and charming interactions between young Maya and unprepared father A.J. Upon first seeing a baby sitting in the book shop isle crying, A.J. responds by asking, “Who the hell are you?” and this sets the sometimes alarming but always endearing tone of their relationship, which is the highlight of the plot.

This book followed ‘A Man Called Ove’ for our book club, which I think was a hard act to follow, and may have coloured our responses. For book lovers, there are many quotable references to how our lives are like, or unlike, books or stories. Enjoy this easy, often witty read with a jasmine green or something herbal and light, but don’t expect to feel quite everything that such a plot, in all its tragedy, should invoke.

 

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