The book in question, the eighth by Gabrielle Zevin, an author more known for her YA [young adult] fare, is one that I have altogether too many thoughts about. I’m choosing not to dub this post a review proper, as it’s really a slightly more cohesive version of one of the stream of consciousness responses to books/films/etc. that blogger/writer J. Caleb Mozzocco is so fond of doing.
In order to make this easier for all of you to read, and with no offence whatsoever meant to Mozzocco [whose writing I enjoy quite a bit] I have boiled down this post to the three primary thoughts I was left with once I’d closed the book.
To be upfront with everyone I also want to state, before starting, that I enjoyed reading this novel and while this will definitely make more sense having read it, I hope to have written it in such a way that doesn’t spoil anything and piques your interest enough to pick it up.
A. J. Fikry: Biracial Bookseller
I’m not sure exactly what this says about me, but nothing about the surname “Fikry” stood out to me as being, well, non-White. You could chalk this up to the general assumption most people have that White people are the norm and so unless explicitly stated otherwise characters must be that, but I also have the feeling I’m just used to slightly stranger family names. I mean, I have known Zbindens and Thorlaksons and Cronks.
What I’m trying to say is that A. J. Fikry rather rudely points out to Knightley publisher sales rep Amelia Loman that he is “partially Indian” 15 pages into the book and, while it surprised me, it is barely referenced again. Two pages later he attempts to warm up frozen vindaloo. After that there’s a reference to his skin tone on page 48 and a description on page 215 of his mother being “a tiny white woman with long gray hair that has not been cut since she retired from her job at a computer company a decade ago.” Oh, those and page 83.
While there are bits and pieces here and there about him being considered a tad “foreign” by the residents of the tiny community on Alice Island, page 83 speaks volumes about the protagonist and his life as a biracial man. A customer remarks that he and a little girl are “both black but not the same kind of black,” and he throws those words back in their face in a dangerous tone. It’s only the shortest glimpse into the kind of backlash that repeated microagressions can elicit, but it certainly rings true.
Zevin chooses a biracial man as her main character, while focusing on many aspects of his life that are just like yours or mine. At the same time, she also ensures that there is at least one moment to illustrate that life is so very different for non-White people living in a North American world.
Amelia Loman: Manic Pixie Dream Girl
To a point, I think most people have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about. I would say that Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State is probably the best example from my personal experience, but the AV Club’s Nathan Rabin points to Kristen Dunst in Elizabethtown, who inspired his coining of the term. He describes her in his review of the film as someone who-
“exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
An even more contemporary example is probably Jess, from tied-for-my-favourite-FOX-sitcom New Girl.
The key defining trait, and one that you’ve probably heard altogether too much surrounding the actor if you’ve watched SNL these past few years, is her “quirkiness”. She likes cute, quaint things, she is funny and dresses in a particular way, she has her endearing-and-not-irritating obsessions, etc. Amelia Loman definitely fits a number of these descriptors.
A. J. Fikry, on page 17, tells us that she-
“had looked like a time traveler from 1990s Seattle with her anchor-printed galoshes and her floral grandma dress and her fuzzy beige sweater and her shoulder-length hair that looked like it had been cut in the kitchen by her boyfriend.”
Upon first reading this I was stunned by the mental image it conjured up, if only because it immediately brought to mind the character trope just mentioned. Not to go into much further detail, but 100 pages later her room is said to contain, among other things, “a mason jar filled with dying sunflowers”, “a bobblehead of Hermione Granger”, and “a lamp with a polka-dotted scarf draped over it.”
That’s not to say that this negatively affected my reading of the book, or the way that I viewed the character. Zevin wrote her, as well as she possible could, to be a realistic human being and she certainly doesn’t revolve around the novel’s protagonist, serving solely to bring light and joy to his life. I simply call attention to it because it seems to be well aware of the character type, and embraces it instead of shying away from it [I will also admit that such people exist, but art of the written variety does not exist in a vacuum free of other media].
Books Are Best
To finally get to what I hope is the shortest of these three sections, the fact of the matter is that The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a celebration of the medium. The titular character loves to read, as does Amelia, and as do many of the secondary and even tertiary characters. Each chapter is prefaced by a short story recommendation and, not to directly spoil or quote a passage very near the end of the book, a character essentially tells us that people who read and sell books are good people.
The accuracy of that opinion aside, and many people have voiced their own agreeing or disagreeing with it, the reason I consider it worth calling out is because of how barefaced it is. Reading and literature are well-lauded, an appreciation for the art form is worn on its sleeve [if book jackets can have sleeves]. All of this had me wondering if a similar take would be accepted in a different medium.
Would you thoroughly enjoy a TV show that told you, over and over again, how great television was, that those who sit in front of their flat screens have a certain superiority about them? Admittedly there is an admission by a character that “We aren’t the things we collect, acquire, read,” but that is by no means the final word on that particular topic. At the very least, I believe that the reason this is deemed acceptable is because reading and books in general are already considered to be beneficial by most. The opinions, such as they are, are regarded instead as facts.
Whether or not another medium is capable of preaching the same message [and your interpretation of what the novel is trying to say may differ], it is one that I personally agree with, to a point. Reading really can help people to grow and learn, and can’t do much to worsen them [put down that copy of Mein Kampf and allow me to generalize this point]. As one of the things I observed the message is far from egregious, and should at bare minimum be considered an encouragement to pick up a book and read a little more.
Just like how I’m encouraging you to read this book, if you can.