A.J. Fikry is surly and argumentative. Who can blame him? His life is beginning to read like a tragedy. His beloved wife Nic died in a road accident leaving him all alone to manage the small, independent bookstore they ran together on Alice Island, off the port of Hyannis in New England. Sales have been dwindling yet the zealous new sales representative at Knightley Press won’t stop pestering him with new titles from their upcoming lists.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, his rare and very valuable first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane, the one he has been banking his early retirement on, has gone missing. It was taken from right under his nose one night as he lay in a drunken stupor in his apartment above the bookstore. The local police chief Lambiase is sympathetic but clueless on how or where to search for the stolen tome. Everything in the life of A.J. Fikry is going downhill.
Until the day he finds a toddler in his bookstore. Sitting by herself on the floor with a copy of Where the Wild Things Are open in front of her, she is old enough to tell him that her name is Maya and stick out two fingers to show her age. But it’s the note attached to her Elmo doll addressed “To the Owner of This Bookstore” which explains that the mother has left Maya in his care because she can no longer take care of her but wants “her to grow up in a place with books.” A.J. Fikry’s life has taken yet another unexpected turn.
Over the next few years the Knightley sales rep, Amelia, continues to visit him but he is less mean to her now. One book in particular, The Late Bloomer, which she had recommended at their first meeting, moves him to tears. He acknowledges that she is good at her job. He invites her to have lunch with him the next time she’s on the Island. He also starts dating again, mostly blind dates set up by well-meaning friends, but looks increasingly forward to Amelia’s visits. A.J. Fikry’s life takes one more surprising turn for the better.
In creating A.J.’s ordinary-yet-extraordinary life, author Gabrielle Zevin has thrown every cliché into the mix: down-on-his-luck man finds child, adorable child melts heart of the man, despised work associate turns love interest, big-hearted police chief of small town, philandering author and his long-suffering wife… the list goes on. There are few real surprises in the plot and attentive readers will be able to tell where the story is headed. But that is not the point; the clichés and the predictable plot take nothing away from Zevin’s work because it’s how she tells the story that first charms the reader, then holds them enthralled, making them read the whole book in a single sitting. And finally give the book a long hug when they are finished. Yes, it’s that kind of book.
The characters are so realistic that it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with all of them. Maya, “the fantastic nerd,” Amelia, “the giantess” with questionable taste in fashion, the adorable police chief, and A.J., the reluctant hero whose long list of things he hates include ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, vampire novels and electronic reading devices that will “send centuries of a vibrant culture into what will surely be an unceremonious and rapid decline.”
And who doesn’t bother to soften his assessment of a novel that is counted among the best works of the 20th century. “‘Infinite Jest is a masterpiece,’ Harvey had said. ‘Infinite Jest is an endurance contest. You manage to get through it and you have no choice but to say you like it. Otherwise, you have to deal with the fact that you just wasted weeks of your life,’ A.J. has countered. ‘Style, no substance, my friend.’ Harvey’s face had reddened as he leaned over the desk.”
There is one aspect of A.J’s character that the author touches upon but never offers any detail. At their initial meeting, when Amelia suggests a book titled The Year Bombay Became Mumbai, A.J. feels insulted and insists that “you’re only telling me about it because I’m partially Indian.” Soon after, the ghost of his dead wife, or so he thinks, calls him by his full name: “‘Ajay,’ Nic whispers. ‘Go to bed.’” And that’s it. There is no more mention in the book about his background which makes the reader wonder why it was even necessary to make him anything other than fully Caucasian in the first place. Unless it was to be able to include the callous comment made by a passerby who, on observing A.J. with Maya, notes that “you’re both black but different kinds of black.”
The passage of time, race issues, and the bureaucratic wrangling of children’s services are all swept aside in the telling of this story. Not because there’s anything to hide or because reality is not allowed to interfere, but because the narrative chooses to focus on the important stuff. For example, it focuses on the police chief who organises a reading club for policemen at the book store. His original intention is to help drum up business, but over the years he becomes a genuine bibliophile. One who tends to always have homespun advice for his cynical friend: “‘Bad timing,’ Lambiase proclaims. ‘I’ve been a police officer for twenty years now and I’ll tell you pretty much every bad thing in life is a result of bad timing, and every good thing is the result of good timing.’”
This novel is about books and contains literary references and jokes about book publishing that many will enjoy. It is also about the power of unexpected happiness and always believing that something wonderful is just around the corner. The Late Bloomer is the book within a book which brings together the book sales rep and the bookstore owner. It reminds them that life doesn’t follow a set script, things happen when they are meant to happen, and there is no such thing as “too late” for anything. Life is the big picture. Always look at the big picture. Enjoy it. Don’t get too engrossed in the details. Because it will all be over before you know it. In the long run nobody, not even you, will remember the mundane details because they are, in the end, quite irrelevant.
A.J.’s final words of wisdom to teenaged Maya convey the same sentiment in literary terms: “We are not quite novels. We are not quite short stories. In the end, we are collected works. He has read enough to know there are no collections where each story is perfect. Some hits. Some misses. If you’re lucky, a standout. And in the end, people only remember the standouts anyway, and they don’t remember those for very long.”
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
By Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin Books, North Carolina