We are accustomed in our loud, brash, 24/7 news cycle world to marking life’s big, momentous moments, the 10th anniversary of this, the 75th celebration of that, our calendars jammed full of the epic, the noteworthy, the hard to miss.
While there is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this, it does mean that we often overlook the quietly joyful or discreetly melancholic moments, the fleeting harbingers of greater things to come, that don’t announce themselves with fanfare and parades but slip quietly in and out, noticed only, if they are noticed at all, by those attuned enough to note the significance of their presence.
It is in these small, unremarkable moments that The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin resides, its gentle, beautifully written narrative marked not by the bombastic and the brazen but by the unheralded, the seemingly inconsequential events that, in time, come to signify a great deal more than we thought they ever would.
It is not that this delightful book ignores the big events for they are there in its pages – unexpected deaths, the abandoning of a baby, love lost and then found – but they are merely the tent poles on which the smaller, more easily ignored but vastly more consequential and eternal moments drape themselves, awaiting their full unfurling in time.
Not that A. J. Fikry, owner of small, failing bookshop on New England’s Alice Island is paying much attention to events of either stripe when first we come across him.
A man always far more home in the short stories and classical literature he loves than the people who occasionally buy them from him, he has retreated even further form humanity after the death of his gregarious, sociable wife, Nic, spending his days all but ignoring the once lively business he and Nic built from the ground up, his mind only on how much he can drink and how much of the passing tide of life he can obliterate from his memory as a result.
He is not a happy man, and so when Amelia Loman, the newly installed book rep for Knightley Press and a woman in love with books but not, frustratingly, with the man of her dreams who has yet to make an appearance, pays Fikry’s store, Island Books a call, he is curt, rude and condescending, bustling her out almost before she has walked in.
Dismissing it as a small moment of little consequence at first, more concerned the theft of his priceless copy of Tamerlane by Edgar Allan Poe that followed a microwave-heated dinner of cheap Vindaloo curry accompanied by oceans of Merlot, he moves on with his quest for a more perfect form of oblivion, little noticing that this is a turning point in his life.
A small, seemingly insignificant blip in the scheme of things upon which pivots what turns out to be a blessed escape from the grief that has overwhelmingly ensnared him, a reawakening of sorts that brings with a host of unexpected, quietly announced surprises, moments that are far more the sum of their parts than they first appear.
And in ways big and not so big, A. J. Fikry’s life comes alive again – he gains a daughter, Maya, left in the bookstore by a single mother unable to cope, the promise of love with Amelia, and growing relationships with the people of his community including the charming, book lover in waiting, Officer Lambiase.
These are the collected works of his life, the web of relationships, love and friendship that come to unexpectedly mean every bit as much to him as the books he has gathered around him, his other collection which includes titles such as The Diamond as Big as the Ritz by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922), A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor and The Girls in Their Summer Dresses by Irwin Shaw (1939), all of which are annotated at the start of each chapter with notes for Maya on their literary worth.
As much a love letter to the possibilities of life, as to reading, literature and the importance of bookstores, which are sadly fast disappearing from the landscape of our lives, The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry is a sweet, without being cloyingly sentimental, ode to the small and the unremarkable and the way they can grow into something magnificent and meaningful if only we will pay them some attention.
Filled with a passion for the written word, and dialogue that sparkles with the sort of wit you find in old Spencer/Hepburn romantic comedies, with a cast of secondary characters every bit as vital as Fikry and his “collected works” of people he loves, Zevin’s charmingly unassuming book is one for the romantic at heart, for people who appreciate the real romance of life happens when we’re least expecting it, in the nitty gritty realities of everyday, often unremarked upon life.