Storied Life of J T Fikry is Sentimental, but Charming

By Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin 978-1616203214, 288 pp.
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How do you like your curmudgeons–redeemed or pure? Do books centered on how a child changes someone's life cause you to go "ahhhh!" or "ewwee?" I'm usually in the second camp on both questions, but The Storied Life of J. T. Fikry won me over in the end.

The Storied Life of J. T. Fikry is ironic in that it's the latest in a spate of novels set in bookstores to hit the market at about the time that bookstores are folding like an origami workshop. (The genre includes works such as Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, The Bookshop, and The Shadow of the Wind.) Zevin uses the bookstore's declining appeal as part of her plot. J. T. Fikry is a Southeast Asian man who owns a bookstore on Alice Island–a dead ringer for Martha's Vineyard. He's a recent widower, his shop is struggling, and a prized and quite valuable first edition of Edgar Allen Poe's Tamerlane has just disappeared from his shop. Police Chief Lambiase, who investigates the theft, is like most islanders in that he tolerates Fikry because he's been on Alice Island for a long time and because everyone loved Fikry's late wife, a local gal. But he's also lukewarm about Fikry, who is a crank, misanthrope, and literary snob. The latter is among the reasons his shop is in decline. Heaven help the publishing agent who tries to interest Fikry in anything to do with vampires, zombies, celebrities, magical realism, postmodernism, or middlebrow pap. Mention names such as Stephen King, Danielle Steel, or John Grisham at your own peril!

Luckily the new agent for Knightly Press, Amelia, has been warned of Fikry's temper and tastes. She makes her way to Alice Island with a list of books sure to appeal to Fikry, but she's so charmed by the shop and the local scenery that she can't resist making a few small suggestions. They don't go over well, but to evoke a famed line from the movie Casablanca, it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Lord knows J. T. could use a few friends other than the two he has: Daniel Parish, a womanizing, egotistical one-hit island novelist, and his wife Ismay (who is also J. T.'s sister-in-law). Fikry's life is turned upside down when a note and a two-year-old biracial infant named Maya are left in his shop and the Alice Island ferry discovers Maya's suicidal mother floating in the bay. Fikry improbably decides to adopt Maya.

Zevin's novel spans the next sixteen years of Maya's life, J. T.'s odd relationship with Amelie, his even less probable friendship with Lambiase, and J.T.'s transformation from embittered malcontent to reluctant participant in island life. The story is at times touching and charming, but it will also test your credulity and your tolerance for coincidences.

I was won over by the book's good hear and Zevin's ability to develop memorable characters that make readers feel as if they have come to know them. She so lovingly describes the bookstore that one can almost smell the dampness escaping from used tomes. Full disclosure: I read this novel immediately after plowing through Elizabeth Catton's magisterial but challenging The Luminaries, so my enjoyment of J. T. Fikry was enhanced by the fact that it was a zippy, mentally non-taxing read. It's the kind of book that is extremely likely to be made into a saccharine feel-good film starring flavor-of-the-month celebrities. At the risk of sounding like pre-Maya J.T., I recommend you read the book before the inevitable movie comes out. I happen to share his dislike of least-common-denominator fiction.-- Rob Weir  

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