Reviewed in Australia on 29 September 2014
In brief, THE COLLECTED WORKS OF A.J. FIKRY tells the gentle, bookish, funny, and touching tale of A.J., the curmudgeonly owner of Island Books, and the two persons of the female persuasion who turn his quiet life upside down - Amelia, the persistent sales rep from Knightley Press, and Maya, the toddler who is abandoned in Island Books one day and worms and squirms her way into A.J.'s heart and home.
I must admit, I was initially concerned, because I could see that the book had the potential to be either maudlin or cutesy, but the author's skill steers it between these two landmines down the road of "Just plain funny!" instead. The book is full of the best kinds of humor: dark humor, wry humor, ironic humor, nerdy humor. For example, when A.J. first encounters Maya, we are casually told that: "A.J. has never changed a diaper in his life though he is a modestly skilled gift wrapper."
If the reader is a bookworm, A.J.'s penchant for seeing life as the plot of a poorly written novel, for assessing people as cliches of characterization in said poorly written novel, and for judging people based on their literary tastes will feel all too comfortably familiar. At one point, Lambiase, the local policeman, says about A.J. and the people around him, "They're book people, you know." That's why I felt so comfortable ensconcing myself in their world for a while - I'm a book person, too, so I was in the best company possible. These characters understand that: "You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question: What is your favourite book?"
This is the most stridently self-reflexive book I've ever read, almost as if the characters and their story are there primarily to reflect on the writing process, the publishing process, and the reading process. It is a slightly odd feeling to be prompted by the book you're reading to reflect on the fact that you're reading a book! But it is also fun and fascinating to feel that the author is using her own work of fiction to describe what it is like to write and to be published.
The characters, especially A.J. and Maya, are larger than life, and, paradoxically, while they are not exactly realistic, they have a kind of verisimilitude that draws the reader immediately into their lives. I am not a big fan of short stories, but A.J. has convinced me to give them another go. Can there be any greater tribute to a fictional character than to take their advice and act on it even after their story has ended? The mysterious magic of this book even achieves a feat that I have seen equaled nowhere else: Somehow, it manages to turn Google into a character in its own right!
Of all the disarmingly lovable characters in the book, however, Maya is most definitely the most disarming and most lovable of all. She reminds me a little of Turtle in Barbara Kingsolver's THE BEAN TREES - only more so. We are told, for example, that: "The store is fifteen Mayas wide and twenty Mayas long. She knows this because she once spent an afternoon measuring it by laying her body across the room. It is fortunate that it is not more than thirty Mayas long because that is as far as she could count on the day the measurements were taken." The most important things in THE COLLECTED WORKS OF A.J. FIKRY always come back to books, and my favorite description of Maya's relationship with books is no exception: "The first way Maya approaches a book is to smell it. She strips the book of its jacket, then holds it up to her face and wraps the boards around her ears. Books typically smell like Daddy's soap, grass, the sea, the kitchen table and cheese." Maya provides some of the most evocatively moving moments in the book, as well as the funniest. At one point, "despite the fact that A.J. does not believe in God, he closes his eyes and thanks whomever, the higher power, with all his porcupine heart [for Maya]."
The book covers a large swath of time in the life of A.J. Fikry, and the passing of time is a subtle but constant theme in the story, especially concerning the way in which unexpected events are dotted throughout a life to provide turning points that change that life so fundamentally that it is never the same again. Even the most average life is divided into its own unique eras - seasons that pass, never to come again, so that we can look back on them and feel that they were a completely different life belonging to the completely different person we were way back then. About halfway through, the quirkiness and verve of the story does ebb a little and I wondered if it had peaked too early. It is true that toward the end, the story takes on a slightly more serious aspect, but the delicious surprises keep right on coming, in the form of both plot and characters. For example, it is a pleasure to meet A.J.'s mother at this point, a woman who may just be the least stereotypical seventy-year-old in contemporary literature: "She dates some - women and men. She has slipped into bisexuality without needing to make a big thing out of it. She is seventy, and she believes you try new things or you may as well die."
THE COLLECTED WORKS OF A.J. FIKRY has a unique sense of humor; has a unique reverence and affection for books of all kinds; is peopled by not only unique but singular characters; and tackles common themes in the most unique ways. It really is difficult to imagine anyone not finding something to like about this unusual but unassuming little book. I highly and unreservedly recommend this warm and whimsical story to all.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.