You probably think that booksellers all know each other and that we spend all our time talking to each other about books? Well, you’d be mostly right – we do also have an abiding interest in cakes, going to the pub and, occasionally, our partners and families. It makes sense then that I was led to the Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by enthusiastic comments from colleagues on our work intranet. I have a bit of a general reluctance to follow fashion, to read the novel everyone is talking about or to see the film that is getting all the hype but when words like ‘charming’, ‘captivating’ and ‘gem’ are being bandied about by people whose opinion I value then I’m willing to give it a go.
This is a slender book – only about 250 pages – but it packs a lot in. Nothing earth-shattering or historic but the kind of thing I adore – the life and loves of one rather special character. Our hero A.J. is a bookseller (first HUGE point in his favour) but he doesn’t really do ‘customer service’ in a big way. He is definitely cranky, sometimes downright rude – he probably wouldn’t fit in well on the average high street – but he is a good bookseller. He knows books and he knows what kind of books his customers should and will read – he is a legend among publisher reps for his accurate buying. Okay, I realise that so far I am selling this book to no-one but booksellers but there is so much more.
As the book opens we discover that A.J. is a recent widower – his outgoing and popular wife, a native of the small island community which his bookstore serves, has died in an accident. As he is still reeling from this shock his ‘pension plan’, a rare and valuable book, disappears from his home – in a different sort of book (I have also just finished reading Stoner, by the way) this would be the cue for a descent into darkness and pain. The best I could have hoped for would have been a Black Books sort of vibe. However, the story takes an unexpected turn when A.J. finds a baby abandoned in the shop. The little girl’s mother is found dead and, rather unusually, the bookseller decides to adopt the child.
A large part of the book seems to be about the relationship between A.J. and Maya, the orphaned child, and I loved the way that each chapter starts with a short story recommendation for Maya which shows how her education is being guided. We also see A.J. developing as a person – initially you are concerned that he would be the worst person in the world to raise a child but, very soon, you realise that he has a huge amount to offer. Maya’s education, both intellectually and emotionally, is unusual but you certainly feel that she is going to turn out alright.
There is a good cast of characters – I particularly like Lambiase, the local cop who starts a crime fiction book group, and the putative author of a memoir called ‘The Late Bloomer’ – and they are all, as far as I can see, basically good people. The book is also a good description of a small, isolated community – it is certainly one that I could happily live in.
I won’t tell you how the book ends. But I will say that, towards the last few pages, I definitely had something in my eye. Without being overly sentimental you are put through a bit of an emotional wringer – and I do prefer an unhappy ending – but positivity finally shines through.