Do you haunt bookstores? Find yourself looking for one of those quirky, small independent shops even on vacation? Have you ever fantasized about owning such a place, shelves stacked with books of all sorts, located in a quaint little town? Yes? (Guys, call me. Girls, please click follow :p) Well then, this is just the book for you.
The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry is the story of a middle-aged man who owns a failing bookstore on Alice Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. Depressed for the past two years, following the death of his wife, Fikry is lonesome, angry and a total literary snob. He doesn’t stock just any old book in Island books where “No Man Is An Island; Every Book Is A World”. Only those titles that satisfy his old-fashioned beliefs are allowed in:
“I do not like postmodernism, post-apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be–basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful–nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary. and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and–I imagine this goes without saying–vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry translations. I would prefer not to stock series, but the demands of my pocketbook require me to. For your part, you needn’t tell me about the ‘next big series’ until it is ensconced on the New York Times Best Sellers List.“
Wow. Talk about being high maintenance.
Not surprisingly, he doesn’t get a lot of customers and has a few friends, and in the space of the first few chapters, his most valuable possession, a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane, is stolen. Into the slough of despond he tumbles, until something–or someone–unexpectedly shows up in the sparsely stocked children’s section. A little bundle of joy and redemption changes his life forever. He quickly figures out that books and reading can bind lives as surely as any shared love.
The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry zips by, paced by a few unexpected turns and complications, and any potholes in the plot are quickly smoothed over. Everything is explained, and all the loose ends are tied up with a bow. A few genuinely grim moments (People die frequently and suddenly in this story) are leavened by the animating spirit behind the whole, a light tone marked by earnestness, a straight forward approach to love and joy, and a felicitous charm.
What distinguishes this romance is its setting. Zevin puts her insider knowledge of the bookselling business to paint a colourful picture of overly optimistic sales reps, the neighbourhood book clubs and the desperate spirit of the bricks-and-mortar store filled with bound books in the digital age. There is also a very funny set piece with an out-of-town author on hand for a reading who gets rip-roaring drunk, and there’s a poignant story about the fate of good but overlooked writing.
Despite Fikry’s disdain for gimmicks, at the beginning of each chapter are what appear to be shelf-talkers: brief notes recommending a classic short story or collection of short stories. But these are more than just anonymous notes to passing customers. They’re small expressions of a parent’s love, passing along a passion for writing and reading and good stories.
More than anything else, though, The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry is about books. Not only about the selling of them, or the reading of them, but how books and stories become part of our lives, how we find ourselves within what we read, how we carry books with us–literally or figuratively–as talismans, as reminders. It is a powerful novel about the power of novels, but there is nothing outsize or meta-textual about it, no cloying literary in-jokes or philosophical digressions: The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry is a book for people who love books, who recognize a story well-told for what it is, and for the power it contains.