If you’re a lifelong reader like me, chances are you dream of owning a bookstore. Since I was seventeen, I’ve imagined running a boutique bookstore. I would name my store Bookish. Situated on a picturesque street in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Washington, my bookstore would have quirky cashiers, cozy sitting areas with ferns, and, of course, author events. Never mind that Friday Harbor already has a lovely independent bookstore or that Bookish is the name of a bookseller in Berkeley and a .com book site. And forget that independent booksellers struggle in the e-commerce age. Owning a bookstore was (and still is) my aspiration.
Reading Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry rushed me back to my bookseller dream. A passionate love letter to books and indie bookstores, the novel centers on A.J. Fikry, a bitter bookseller in an isolated island town. As a recent widower, Fikry copes with books and cheap merlot until (and I won’t spoil a significant plot twist) unexpected joy enters his life.
Is this a good book club pick? I give a qualified but resounding yes. AJF has universal themes of love, hope, and loss that I think will resonate with most readers. It’s an engaging story and every element is about books—the power of stories and prose, the feel of a paperback, the smell of a stack of books, and authors with the ability to create entire new worlds. My only reservation for an absolute recommendation is based on some reviewers labeling the novel as chick lit. While I can see why—even the morose parts bounce along on optimism and the book never goes too deep—I think the plot twists and approachable writing style make this an everyone-lit book. More serious book clubs accustomed to reading and dissecting literature might consider the novel to be too light.
But for many readers, the book will likely promise a rich discussion on the likeable characters and the books (don’t forget the short story collections) mentioned. Not only do each of the thirteen chapters begin with a book synopsis, but Zevin name drops countless books and authors throughout the pages. If you didn’t already have a to-be-read list, the books mentioned in AJF are a fantastic place to start.
At 258 pages, it’s reasonable to expect most readers (even busy parents) will be able to finish the book in a four- to six-week window. I finished the book quickly—it’s a page turner and the ending satisfied me. From start to finish, AJF is a good read. If I had to criticize any element, it would be a lack of any mention of my favorite author, Margaret Atwood. Just so we’re clear, if I ever write a novel, I’ll find a way to reference The Handmaid’s Tale or The Edible Woman in some way.
One of my favorite passages involves a discussion on the timing of books. A.J. argues that some books need to be read at the right time to strike a chord. “Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time.” I agree. A Wrinkle in Time is a great example. I read that book in the third grade and it never stuck with me. Then just this week, I started reading the book to my first grader. She fell asleep in chapter two and I kept on reading. I finished the book in one big gulp and now I can’t wait to discover more Madeleine L’Engle books that I should have enjoyed more as a child.
I recommend this book as a good break between heavy or dark subjects. Did your book club just finish a book on WWII or slavery? Perfect! Read AJF next and it will cleanse your palette for the next emotional roller coaster book. To make your book club evening a theme night, consider a garden party theme (like A.J.’s doomed author event for The Late Bloomer) and ask everyone to share their top three books. If you like this novel, you might also want to read Lorna Landvik’s 2003 novel, Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, another plot centered on a love of books.
Would it make a good gift?
Absolutely. I think teens to adults will enjoy the book. In fact, round out your gift with books A.J. Fikry recommends, like Bel Canto or The Book Thief.
Will I recommend it to my husband?
No. He gravitates toward non-fiction and history—Seabiscuit and Devil in the White City are more his speed. While I think many men would enjoy the novel, I imagine more women will be fans of AJF.
Book club questions:
1. What do you think of the author’s skill with character development? Were the characters layered or did some appear to be sketches? If so, which ones?
2. If A.J. Fikry were a writer, and not an opinionated bookseller, what genre would he have attempted? Do you think he would have succeeded as an author?
3. A.J. Fikry summarizes thirteen books. Do you think these picks are his top books, or are they perhaps more significant to the story arc?
4. What are your three favorite books of all time, and why?
5. What was the first book you remember reading that hooked you?
6. In the book, Moby Dick is skewered for being the required high school book that many students loathed. Which required or assigned book would have soured you on reading if it had been your first book?
Thank you for reading my review and please let me know what you think of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.