Pandering Done Right

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry - Gabrielle Zevin
We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.
My life is in these books. Read these and know my heart.
We are not quite novels.
We are not quite short stories.
In the end, we are collected works.

This is going to be a tough one to talk about for me because it went straight to my favourites shelf and, as this book has stated in not so few words, its always easier to talk about what we hated than what we loved.

In truth, there was some John Green levels of emotional manipulation going on in this novel. The kind where you’re laughing inappropriately over some double entendre about gyms smelling like balls one minute and overcome with painful sobs in the next. It also involved exorbitant levels of pandering to its audience, appealing to our good graces, that can only be classified as cheating. 

And honestly I didn’t mind it much. 

The book is divided into chapters that starts of with a book title and AJ Fikry relaying his thoughts about them to an unknown (for a stretch anyway) reader. AJ is the widowed owner of Island Books in a New England town. Embittered by his wife’s untimely death, and a self-confessed literary snob, AJ lives the life of a surly recluse on top of his beloved bookstore, each day often ending in a drunken stupor. One such night cost him his extremely rare copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane and on another different night gained him a most unexpected trade-off: a two-year old girl, Maya. Once AJ decides to adopt the child, the townsfolk of Alice Island start to notice new and welcome changes in their local grinch: from loner to father to husband to beloved town fixture.

Unlike my last read which roughly tackles the same issues of a middle-aged character stepping out of their hermitage, this delivered a much more interesting story embodied in likeable, charming characters, beginning with AJ Fikry. I do admit that there were instances that made me feel like Zevrin was trying a little too hard wining me over with some of AJ and Amelia’s rom-com antics and that special quirky magic that happens when a single, thirty-something male is left to figure out the circuitry of a child but I can’t say she failed. There’s a reason, outside Gru’s minions, why Despicable Me had a sequel after all.

And how can I begrudge a book that asks all the essential questions in life that need to be answered?

❊ In what restaurant based on a novel would you have preferred to dine? 

❊ Is a plot twist less satisfying if you know it is coming? Is a twist that you can’t predict symptomatic of bad construction?

❊ What if there is only an equal ratio of happiness to unhappiness in the world at any given time?

I liked that the humour came across smart, most of the punchline a little winded that to quote a passage reflecting this book’s wit would entail quoting the entire page (which I won’t do). There was a richness in the variety of Zevrin’s delivery of this story that glides and swerves in spectrums of emotions. The layers that comprised A Trip to the Beach stood out for me: in that it well-approximated how a short story written by the fourteen year old adopted daughter of a New England bookstore owner about her dead mother would read like. The poignancy in the visibly amateurish hand was quite remarkable.

I am still undecided what to make of the pacing of this story because I’m not sure if the delivery was truly breakneck or I was just reading too fast. I suppose it served the story well enough since I think a languid execution, with too much character introspection, would have dampened the eventual impact this was so obviously aiming for. However, this did affect some of AJ’s relatively rapid transition from sneering literary snob to loveable, family-oriented book nerd. There were certain stretches that I wouldn’t have minded the pace slowing down. But having kept my investment towards the characters’ outcomes, I suppose this didn’t do that bad a job in that department.

It doesn’t take much effort to imagine how this won’t work for certain types of readers, cynicism does give quite the pleasant jolt getting pounded out of a keyboard than harping about how a certain passage from a book made you cry. A love letter about books and reading that shamelessly manipulates your emotions this way and that could easily be a bottomless well of disappointment if you’d let it. 

But from where I’m harping, it’s a struggle not see this as anything other than brilliant.

Why is any one book different from any other book? They are different, AJ decides, because they are. We have to look inside many. We have to believe. We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and then.

Review Copy courtesy of the publishers. Quotes taken from an uncorrected proof.