Review: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

Continuing my journey for comfort reading, I landed on The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. In part, I chose this because of the various rapturous reviews from other book bloggers but more so because I have had a copy sitting on my shelf since mid-2015. Set in a bookstore in a quaint New England town, it’s a book about books, about people who love books and about the power of books and story-telling to guide you through life. I was dimly aware of the novel being taken passionately to heart by the bibliophile community on publication but I was busy at the time and it slipped down my list. Yet when I finally took a look for myself, I noticed something very quickly. A fairly glaring plot point which none of the glowing feedback that I ever saw seemed to mention. Umm … guys? This is a Silas Marner retelling? Are we just ignoring that?

A.J. Fikry is a grumpy middle-aged man who is trying to run a bookshop while mourning the recent death of his wife. Then the rare first edition book intended to fund his retirement is stolen. But then one evening he discovers a a two-year old girl has been abandoned in his store with a note asking that the owner bring her up to be a reader. A.J.’s life is changed forever. So we’ve got ‘grumpy middle-aged man with tragic back story’, ‘loss of material treasure’ and ‘discovery of emotional treasure’. Add in the twists around A.J.’s adoptive daughter Maya’s back-story and yes, it’s a point for point re-run of Silas Marner. It’s not that I am wholesale against retellings but I wished that Zevin had been a little more open that this was what she was doing. In all the many, many literary references within The Storied Life, she never makes so much as a nod towards George Eliot. And that made the book feel sneaky.

All the same, I can see why it proved so popular among the book-blogger community. It references the process around book publicity, ARCs and other niche aspects of the ‘inside track’ around books. Reading is rated highly both as a social activity and as a way to bond with others. There is also the absolutely stellar introduction from A.J. himself when he describes his literary tastes to Amelia, the rep from the publishing house:

I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic 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 à 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.

Oh A.J. You and I would get along so well. More to the point though, I think that I would probably have a lot to talk over with A.J.’s creator since I suspect that his bookish preferences are an indication of hers. Gabrielle Zevin is also the author of Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac which I read repeatedly despite being at least five years older than the target audience. Something about that whole idea of rebuilding your identity spoke to me. So I’m a fan of the writer. Am I fan of this book though?

Ultimately, I think that Storied Life is something that I heartily enjoyed while I was reading it. It was low-stress, low risk, low drama. Ideal comfort reading. But then it just kind of … stopped. And lots of things niggled. It bothered me that Amelia was just some kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It bothered me that it was not clear what was going to happen to Maya or that the novel ended without returning to her voice. But more than anything, I felt disappointed that the book had turned out as just a low-rent, Hallmark movie version of Silas Marner with none of the emotional complexity.

I get it, not everyone wants to read Silas Marner. In Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, a character is sentenced to read the ten most boring books in the world before they are allowed to die. It’s a punishment for messing up a book’s plot – it makes sense if you read the book. Anyway, one of the books on the boring list is Silas Marner. However, that was not my experience of said book. I read it with my mother when I was thirteen and we loved it. It’s possible that I particularly responded to it since I had an absentee father. When I think of the novel now though, the scene that stands out though is the one where Godfrey Cass tries to reclaim his daughter and she and Silas send him packing. Again, child of an absentee father here so I am aware that my reading may not be universal. To me though, it was a powerful moment. Neither that scene nor any equivalent occur at any point during Storied Life. Maya remains oblivious to her true origins. Her biological father never experiences emotional consequences for his behaviour and displays no true remorse. To me, that meant that Storied Life could only ever be a watery substitute for the real thing.

The thrust of Silas Marner is that treasure comes in many forms. Its message was that you should recognise a blessing when it comes to your door. Silas Marner lost his money but found a daughter. He considered it an excellent exchange. And then the money reappeared but he still got to keep the daughter. Godfrey Cass discarded his daughter to keep his social position and even though he remained rich, his life was emotionally the poorer. His daughter recognises this, rejecting his wealth because she knows that living with him will not bring her any happiness. Even Steve Martin’s bumpy modernised retelling cut to this message. This is the whole point of the story. If you miss that punch, all you have is Three Men and a Baby but with a smaller cast. And unfortunately, Zevin fumbles it.

The problem then is that there are ripple effects throughout the wider narrative. Storied Life could have had a far greater impact if it had drilled into this idea of what we truly treasure. Supporting character Daniel Parish wrote one book quickly that became a bestseller and then he spent years writing others that nobody ever bought. A.J. is mortally offended when his mother buys him an e-reader. There are plot points there which extend from this very dilemma of what we treasure, Zevin just never examines them in any further detail. Indeed, this is also reflected in the original novel where Silas Marner is a weaver, an industry which was about to change forever with the advent of mechanisation. Is our reading about to become mechanised? Given that Amelia and A.J. both get to decide what to stock and thus what is worth reading, how do they decide what is ‘worthy’? All interesting points. None of them get any page-time.

Even aside from the Silas Marner scaffolding, this book still has weaknesses. After the literary preferences passage quoted above, a lot of the book chat descended into cliche. I have mentioned before that ‘Fake Readers’ are one of my bookish pet peeves. You know, when a novel has an earnest discussion about Jane Eyre or Tess of the D’Urbevilles but then can’t summon up an opinion on anything less mainstream? Storied Life felt a bit like that. I feel like it waved its bookish background to the bloggers as if to say, ‘If you’re really bookish then you’ll like me!’ And then so many reviewers clearly had idea that it was anything to do with Silas Marner which the curmudgeonly part of me feels just underlines the Fake Reader point. But that’s unfair because not having read one particular book is hardly a hanging offence.

Basically, this was a nice enough book. It was fine. I was entertained during the first half. Zevin doesn’t seem to know very much about young children and her knowledge around adoption is extremely hazy but if you suspend your disbelief, you have a pleasant enough story about an unlikely family forming within a bookshop. It’s just that Storied Life had the ingredients and potential to be something really great. And Zevin is an excellent writer. So the result feels a little … lazy. Lazy and lacking in heart.

two-half-stars
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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Published by Hachette UK on December 2nd 2014
Genres: Fiction, Disaster, Family Life, General, Friendship, Humorous, Black Humor, Literary, Medical, Small Town & Rural
Pages: 320
Goodreads
ISBN: 9780349141084


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4 thoughts on “Review: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

  1. I haven’t read Silas Marner, so didn’t pick up the connection, but agree with you that the story lacked depth. I have given up buying ‘bookshop’ novels, as I am generally disappointed with them. I was about to say the only exception is ’84 Charing Cross Road’, but then realised that is a memoir!

    1. I think you’re probably right – I had just heard lots of good things so I thought it might avoid the cliche. Sigh. I really like the author too. I will look out for 84 Charing Cross Road though 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  2. What a shame this turned out to be a misfire, especially as you were expecting to like it if you have enjoyed the author’s work before. I wonder though at such a blatent re-telling not being admitted to more openly, it does seem a bit underhand. I think I will give this a miss, and just read some George Elliot.

    1. You know, I think you’re right. I’ve been thinking about trying Adam Bede. This just might be the year.
      It’s funny because I’ve been going through my Greek Mythology Challenge reviews and was just thinking that Girl Meets Boy was a really good retelling of Iphis and Ianthe because it challenged certain aspects of the original story. I think that this one really didn’t work because it did never did any of that. In this day and age, a curmudgeonly bachelor cannot just adopt a passing child without some serious red tape in the way. Times have definitely moved on since Silas Marner. It was a shame as the opening was promising but this was … disappointing.
      Thank you for the comment!

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