Tale that warms the heart
Let me just start by saying that I really like this book. I enjoyed reading it and gobbled it up in one go. It’s a deliciously light and easy read, especially if you love books and bookshops, and if you fantasise about owning a bookshop, or falling in love with the owner of a bookshop. I admit I’m guilty on all counts.
However, A.J. Fikry, the protagonist of this book and the owner of Island Books (“Alice Island’s exclusive provider of fine literary content....”) is most certainly not the man of my dreams, and Island Books, at least when first encountered in Gabrielle Zevin’s novel, is not the sort of bookstore I would choose to spend much time in.
Fikry is surly and sulky, and just the sort of literary snob I despise, dismissive of everything he himself doesn’t like, and by association, of the people who read these books. His tastes are worryingly narrow – going by the kinds of books he disapproves of, here are just some authors you won’t find at Island Books: A.S. Byatt, John Green, Anne Rice, Jonathan Safran Foer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Suzanne Collins, Paul Auster, Ursula Le Guin, Philip Larkin, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Dorothy L. Sayers, Markus Zusak, Denise Levertov, and even Zevin herself.
Of course, there is a reason Fikry is this way. He has to start off as an aggravating stick-in-the-mud so he can be transformed into a loving father and husband and a beloved member of a close-knit community. Fikry, when we first meet him, is coming to terms with the death of his wife. We see him through the eyes of publishing rep Amelia Loman, and by the end of the encounter we wish to, like Amelia, smash Fikry’s computer monitor over his head.
Shortly after this meeting, two important things happen to Fikry: his first edition of Edgar Allen Poe’sTamerlane is stolen, and he finds a toddler, left in his bookstore. What follows requires the reader to suspend disbelief.
The way social services just hands over the babe to Fikry is rather worrisome. However, it is imperative that we relax and let ourselves be carried away by the sheer romance of what comes next: as unoriginal a premise as it is, you’d have to be a total cynic not to warm to the idea of a crusty old single male being swept off his feet by a little baby girl.
This babe is two-year-old Maya and it’s thanks to her that Fikry allows himself to come off his high horse and open up to people, and reassess his literary tastes and choices.
Maya is also responsible, in a roundabout way that is probably the most believable plot point in this book, for Fikry falling in love again – and how the relationship develops is something to savour. It’s not a Mills & Boons romance, not a chick lit romp, not a tragic gothic saga but a humorous and human love story, an uncomplicated tale of a complicated and unlikely pair who find happiness together despite being the people they are.
That the road to the couple’s ultimate state of bliss is littered with literary references, galley proofs, and reading circles is a plus for book lovers, but Zevin keeps it so light that there isn’t the slightest danger that those who’ve never fondled a book in their lives will feel bogged down.
Even the darker aspects of the story – the heartache and betrayal, the death and disappointment – don’t cast long shadows, not because Zevin shrugs them off, but because her characters move on quickly. The fast pace, facilitated by Zevin’s use of the present tense, lifts the mood, discourages moping, and underlines the theme of transformation.
At the start of each chapter is an introduction, written by Fikry, to a short story. Their exact purpose won’t be clear right off, but if you’re a book lover, you’ll welcome these recommendations, and even if the stories are familiar, Fikry’s observations will make you want to revisit them.
Later, you will want to go back and re-read all the book notes. They will seem to say more, or, because of what you now know, you will read more into them.
They illustrate what I like most about reading – that books reveal different things to the reader depending on when they are read; that they mean different things depending on our age when we read them and what we’ve experienced at that point.
Fikry points this out in his note about The Luck Of Roaring Camp by Bret Hart. By this time in the novel, he’s no longer the annoying book snob of the early chapters, time and experience having made him wiser and kinder. He never does turn into my fantasy bookseller, but Fikry’s story is still one that warms me through and through, just like the best tales are meant to.