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book review

Life, as John Lennon once famously sang, is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

Sure, that line is now so familiar as to be a cliché, and therefore robbed of much of its power (and Lennon wasn't even the first one to say it), but it remains true. And perhaps even a little profound. It's certainly true for A.J. Fikry.

Thirty-nine-year-old Fikry never planned on becoming a bookseller, or the proprietor of tiny Island Books, the only bookstore on tiny Alice Island in New England. He certainly never planned to be fighting with all of his being to keep the store afloat as the book industry and the economy conspire against him.

He never planned on his copy of Tamerlane, the near-priceless first collection by Edgar Allen Poe, one of the rarest books in American literature, being stolen from his kitchen.

And he certainly never planned for life without his wife, who – two months pregnant – died in a car accident.

Is it any surprise, then, that as The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry opens, the titular bookseller is surly and isolated, rude to his staff, the locals, his former sister-in-law, and anyone else who dares even approach him, including Amelia, the new sales rep for Knightley Press? Wouldn't you be?

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, the wonderful, thoughtful and touching new novel from Los Angeles writer Gabrielle Zevin, is not, however, about the darkness of Fikry's existence. Rather, it's about the power of life to surprise, about how plans – and lives – change in the barest of moments.

For Fikry, that moment comes when he discovers Maya, a two-year-old girl who is left in his bookstore with a note from her mother: "I love her very much, but I can no longer take care of her," Maya's mother writes. "The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help."

If you guess, at this point, that Fikry will take the foundling child in, that his life will change as a result, well, of course you're correct. Just how it changes, though, and the repercussions of those changes, makes the novel worth reading. No, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is better than that, better than merely "worth reading" – it's actually a treat, a small gem of a book.

Zevin – who is better known as a young adult writer – navigates skilfully through treacherous terrain, avoiding the familiar and overturning readerly expectations. There is, for example, precious little in the way of "single man struggling humourously with childcare" and virtually no "adoption hassles with faceless bureaucracy." Zevin has bigger things in mind.

Despite its length – the novel can be read in a single sitting – The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry spans more than a decade. Through the story of A.J. and Maya, Zevin not only chronicles the foibles and idiosyncrasies of small-town life, but explores the depths of grief, yearning and heartbreak. There is a love story, yes, but it's handled with a sensitivity and genuine clarity that is both surprising and refreshing.

More than anything else, though, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is about books. Not only about the selling of them (and yes, Zevin gets the mild surreality of the bookselling world correct), or the reading of them, but how books and stories become part of our lives, how we find ourselves within what we read, how we carry books with us – literally and figuratively – as talismans, as reminders. It is a powerful novel about the power of novels, but there is nothing outsize or metatextual about it, no cloying literary in-jokes or philosophical digressions: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a book for people who love books, who recognize a story well-told for what it is, and for the power it contains.

Robert J. Wiersema's new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.

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