By Charity Vogel
News Staff Reporter
Gabrielle Zevin remembers it as a landmark moment in her life:
Her first library card.
“I was really little – I was 5, or 4,” said Zevin. “I remember, it was the first thing I had that had my name on it, in my tiny little purse.
“I felt like it was the thing that tethered me to the world.”
Zevin has always loved books and reading. And she has always liked the spaces people make in which to browse through and acquire books – places like the public libraries she grew up with in Poughkeepsie and elsewhere, and bookstores.
In her new novel, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” Zevin puts those passions on full display, telling a singular, memorable story about a somewhat misfit bookseller who finds love and redemption through a good woman and a foundling baby.
“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is the April selection of The Buffalo News Book Club. If you love books, you’ll want to make time for this month’s read. For “The Storied Life” is a reader’s paradise of the first order.
It tells the life story of A.J. Fikry, a 40-something man who runs a bookstore and who one day finds a baby girl who has been left behind by her mother in his store. Fikry – who has lost his young wife in a car accident, and who has become sad and isolated in his deep grief – unwillingly takes on the care of the child. The unlikely pair forms a bond, slowly. From there, Fikry begins to form relationships with others around him: a young woman who is a book rep for a publishing house, the local police chief, his wife’s sister. Zevin said books can make such relationships flourish.
“I think it’s interesting – one of the things books can really do in a community, is make a community,” said Zevin. “Books sort of provide this sort of community – this place for us to meet.
“I wanted to talk about that.”
Zevin said that, for her, bookstores have always been a world apart.
She has loved them since she was reading Beverly Cleary.
“I spent a lot of time in bookstores,” said Zevin, who grew up in Poughkeepsie and in other places as her parents moved around the country. “The first place my parents would let me go alone was a bookstore.”
They would give her five dollars to spend, she said.
“Paperbacks were a lot cheaper then,” Zevin said, laughing.
“I remember reading ‘Summer of My German Soldier.’ I remember buying ‘Ramona Quimby.’ ”
In “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” Zevin creates a bookstore setting that is vivid and quaint: Island Books, Fikry’s shop, is the lone bookstore on Alice Island, a New England spot with summer tourists and a quiet off-season.
Fikry started the bookshop with his late wife. When the novel begins, he is miserable, drinking a good deal, and lonely.
Then Maya enters his life. The child has a puzzling past, but Fikry decides to take on her care since, as he points out, she was left in his bookshop, of all the places on the island.
He is helped in this goal by his sister-in-law, Ismay, who is married to a famous writer. And he is also aided by Chief Lambiase, a wise, rueful police officer who becomes a surprising source of friendship for A.J.
Then there is Amelia Loman – the book rep from Knightley Press who stumbles into his shop, knocking down books in her path. At first, they feel mutual dislike.
But, over time, Amelia and A.J. come to see the best side of each other – and they bond, two booklovers who are ideally suited in the most important of ways.
Zevin said the backdrop of a bookshop strikes her as special.
“When you go into a bookstore, you’re not there to buy food or water or necessities,” said Zevin, who spoke to The News’ Book Club last month from her home in California.
“You’re there to expand your emotional and intellectual life,” she added, “or the life of someone you know.”
The bookishness of the novel springs from every page.
Characters in the book talk about literature, reading and the publishing business. Two of the main characters are writers.
One major plotline in “The Storied Life” is about literature of the famous variety – it concerns the acquisition, and then the theft, of a very rare old book, a poetry volume by Edgar Allen Poe called “Tamerlane.”
Zevin said she chose the obscure Poe work as a way of exploring the value that some books can acquire.
“It’s incredibly rare to find a ‘Tamerlane,’ ” she said. “Poe himself disavowed it.”
“It was interesting to me how much value … something could have, that was kind of bad writing.”
The book is even structured along a literary conceit: each of the chapters begins with the title of a famous short story – “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” for instance, or “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” – and there is a brief, personal description of the short fiction at the beginning of the chapter, presenting Fikry’s thoughts about the story.
Zevin said she chose to build the narrative around this collection of short stories to draw attention to the underappreciated art form.
“In terms of A.J., he’s a very prickly bookseller. And the hardest thing to sell is short stories,” said Zevin. “I have always loved short stories.”
“I thought of it as a canon,” she said, “a mini-canon, he was presenting to a young writer.”
Zevin, a graduate of Harvard University, lived in New York City for more than a decade before moving to Los Angeles. She is the author of seven previous books for both adult and young adult audiences – works including “Elsewhere,” “The Hole We’re In” and “Margarettown.”
Zevin said she lets each of her books take on the shape – and the fictional category – it wants to.
“I have stories that I want to tell, and sometimes they look like YA books,” Zevin said.
“It’s really driven by the story itself. I think for a long time before I write. I normally make a lot of decisions about the material before.”
In early April, Zevin is beginning a book tour connected to “The Storied Life” that will take her to places across the country but not, for now, to Western New York.
When she was growing up, Zevin said, her family had a weekly tradition that centered on books.
Every Saturday, she said, she would accompany her parents to Burger King – and then to the public library near their home in Poughkeepsie.
“I don’t know if I developed a Pavlovian response to the library – because of really liking Burger King,” Zevin said, with a laugh.
Deciding to place the character of a child into the setting of a bookstore was a way for Zevin to meditate in the novel on the ways that children are raised – with and around books, or not.
“I think it really matters,” said Zevin. “I think that there’s a big difference between kids that are raised with books, and kids that are not.”
“Kids that are raised with books turn into the adults you want to know.”
The Buffalo News Book Club has copies of “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” – signed by Zevin – to send to a few Book Club readers.
If you are interested, send us your name and address, along with the reasons you would like a copy of Zevin’s book.
The Book Club is also interested in your thoughts on this month’s selection, as well as suggestions for future picks.
You can email us at email@example.com, or send us a note at The Buffalo News – Book Club, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.