Review: The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

I am going to give you, dear reader, a warning I was not given before I read The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry – it will give you all the feelings, and you may want to have some eye drops and tissues near by to mop up your tears/hide evidence of them.

Widower A.J. Fikry owns a bookshop on Alice Island. He’s ornery, his one friend is his cheating brother-in-law, and someone’s just stolen his rare first edition of Tamerlane by Edgar Allen Poe. Just when life couldn’t get worse, A.J. is a complete monster to the sales rep, Amelia, who comes to visit the shop, and then he arrives home from a run to find a baby has been left in his bookshop.

The events of those few days around Amelia’s visit to when Maya is left in Alice Island Books change not just the main characters, but also the island, for good.

Zevin creates a real community of characters in The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry. Although the titular A.J. is pretentious and unfriendly, I couldn’t help but like him from the start, even though I thought his treatment of Amelia was despicable. Amelia herself is a bit of a mystery, but only because we don’t see her much for the first part of the book. Once we do, she’s like an open book (no pun intended) and the kind of person we all wish we could have as a friend. Maya is adorable, at every age we see her, and her influence on all those who surround her is easy to see.

Supporting characters are also well constructed. My favourite by far is Lambiase, the chief of police on Alice. He’s an honourable guy, but very down-to-earth, and if I could join any book club in the world it would his Chief’s Choice Book Club.

The narrative of the book, which clocks in at around 250 pages, stretches over years. This necessitates that the reader is simply given glimpses into the lives of the characters. However, Zevin’s characterisation is so good that even though years pass between some scenes, I still felt connected to Maya and A.J. and the rest.

Zevin’s use of structure is refreshing and original. She intersperses each chapter with a brief review of a book written in the character of A.J. (one of the ‘collected works’ – the other being the community and family A.J. helps create) which takes the reader on a literary journey through A.J.’s life. Zevin also dedicates pages to a story written written by Maya, which she submits for a literary competition. I liked reading Maya’s story – it’s sad and offers an insight into her mindset, and is an interesting literary tool – taking us out of the narrative of the book but at the same time keeping us there because Maya’s story is about something that is pertinent to the events of her life.

Most importantly, the narrative tools Zevin uses all contibute to the thread that runs through The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry – that books can influence and change us as people. The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry is itself one of those books.

How I got this book: From the publisher Little, Brown. This did not influence my review in any way.

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry is out on March 13, 2014.

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