Sometimes you run across a book that you want to love, and it turns out to be terrible. For me, The Storied Life of A.J. Filkry is that book. I promise you, I tried to finish this book. For one thing, I wanted to enjoy the story. Also, it doesn’t seem fair to review a book without reading it the whole way through. But we’ll just have to agree that this isn’t a proper review, because I’m crying Uncle — I’m over halfway through, and I just can’t take it anymore.
The book is about a cynical bookseller whose life is changed by love. I’m a cynical bookseller, and I’m a pretty sappy romantic at heart, so I’m a natural audience for this story. I’ve also been plowing through quite a bit of “required reading” lately (book club books and advanced reader copies of books I’ve been assigned to review, etc.), so I was on the hunt for a quick, light read that I could enjoy in a day or two.
I really tried with this one. I tried to look past the fact that the language is juvenile while so obviously trying to be literary. I tried to pretend the lack of any sort of believable character development was purposeful, and that the author was going for a storybook, fairytale feel that would gel if I just kept reading. I wanted to ignore the fact that every plot twist feels forced, and that even the normal stuff, like the main character’s going out for a run or heating up a microwave dinner, somehow comes across as just as unbelievable as the more ridiculous plot twists, like a ghost cleaning up after dinner or a baby magically appearing in the bookstore for the bookseller to raise as his own. I tried to tell myself that the author Gabrielle Zevin was going for a Daniel Wallace vibe, and that her farfetched plot devices and quirky character choices were purposely out-of-the-box.
But I’ve failed. I think I understand what Zevin is trying to do, but it just doesn’t work. It’s not quirky; it’s just plain unbelievable. It’s not storybook; it’s silly. I can’t imagine why booksellers and other authors are recommending this book, except that it’s set in the world of bookselling. It mentions publisher reps and shelf talkers and ARCs and lots of inside bookseller jargon that’s kind of neat to read about. But this novel has all the trappings of books without the heart: It lacks good plot and good character. Frankly, The Storied Life is just not a good story.
For a book that captures the magic of bookstores and reading, pick up Shadow of the Wind or The Book Thief. For a quick, light read that shows the power of story to knit together a community, read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a quiet, powerful book that’s somehow soothing and healing at the same time. But for the love of bookselling and of books, skip The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.