The Stone-Cold Heart of P.J. Penza

At the end of 2016, Amazon was running a sale on former bestsellers.  I snagged two Kindle books that had been on my to-read list for a few years and figured why not?

In that glorious haze of Buying Stuff That's On Sale (you know what I mean, don't you?  That funny adrenaline rush?), I conveniently forgot that I generally do not enjoy bestsellers.  And in the past year, it's become quite clear to me that I like books that are quirky, bizarre, experimental, and mind-bending.  I also love vaguely trashy fantasy and super-epic space opera, but that's neither here nor there in this conversation, as we are talking about Bestsellers.

One of the books that I purchased was Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, which I recall being popular.  I also remember lots of my coworkers reading it and loving it.  Unfortunately, I mixed this one up in my mind with Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, and went in expecting a magical store.  Whoops.  There is no magical store in this book, merely a homey and charming indie bookshop on a homey and charming island in New England run by a cranky widower named A.J. Fikry.

Oh dear.  This is like a Hallmark original.  My teeth hurt from the saccharine overdose.

Said Mr. Fikry ruins his first appointment with a new book rep because he is rude and highly judgmental of books that he deems subpar, which seem to be most of them.  Said book rep happens to be an attractive young woman named Amelia, who has been having bad luck with online dating.  Oh, I wonder where this will lead?

A.J.'s life has been pretty awful lately.  His wife died in a car crash, and now someone's just stolen his priceless copy of Tamerlane by Edgar Allan Poe.  His sister-in-law Ismay is unhappily married to a novelist who is also a serial cheater, and people just don't seem to be reading books the way they used to.

One day A.J. returns to his shop after a run and the door is open.  He hasn't bothered locking it since the theft.  Inside is a little girl who informs him in her forward two-year-old way that her name is Maya.  Maya's mother, a former collegiate athlete, abandoned her in the bookstore to keep her out of the foster system and then drowned herself.  How is A.J. supposed to take care of a baby when he can't take care of himself?  Thankfully, he has Google.

But what about the legality of the situation? you ask.  Bless, we can't have a cantankerous-intellectual-saved-by-love-of-a-child book if the state just swooped in and took Maya away.  A.J. finds himself caring for the little girl and he keeps her, and the town on the island lets out a collective AWWWWWW and comes back to his bookstore.  Maya grows up and speaks in sentences no other six year old would ever utter, and A.J. pursues a clumsy romance with Amelia, the book rep.

At this point I was halfway in and I wanted to throw this out of a window; unfortunately, it's on my iPad and I cannot afford to toss that two stories down in subzero temperatures.  So I did the next best thing: I skimmed to the end, confirmed what I knew in my cold, cold heart would happen, and angrily picked up my laptop and started writing this review.

Yep, this book definitely has it all: dead wives, abandoned babies, new fathers, and *drumroll* cancer.  Now, why authors are so enamored of cancer as a plot device is completely beyond me.  Cancer is the worst thing in the world, and I feel rather confident stating that without hyperbolic intent.  Cancer is not a romantic way to end your hero's life after making sure he falls in love with life again because of a charming little girl and a wonderful woman.  NO.  Cancer is a vile murderer with no chance at redemption.

Note: Zevin seems to think that people in New England talk as in they are actually in England, and so you've got people manning the till and being "completely mad" for something or other.  I am very surprised that no one ended up in hospital.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry pushes no literary boundaries.  It is basically every Nicholas Sparks book ever but with a brown male lead instead of a white one, and more bookish snobbery.  I wish I had actually considered what I like in a book before purchasing this one simply because lots of other people liked it.  So, if you are looking for "the feel-good hit of the season (of 2014, technically)," you will probably enjoy this.  But if you need something more substantial, look elsewhere.


  1. Now, now, if you want The Neverending Story, go and reread it! ;-) If you'll settle for a bookshop-themed novel, I recommend Cath Crowkey's Words On Deep Blue, which I'm reading now.

    Possibly that spoiler about the cancer is not a good idea for a reader who might still want to read it. But that reader isn't me. I quite enjoyed Elsewhere for the theme, though the living backwards in the afterlife was a bit silly, IMO, but not enough to want to read more of her work.

    1. Yarrgh I spoiler-tagged it in Goodreads but not here. I've not read Elsewhere but have heard mixed reviews.

  2. Haha, I really enjoy your brand of snarkiness. Also, your cancer comment is spot-on.

    1. I was really cranky after I read(ish) this one. I had to bang out a review right away because of my mood.

  3. Great review. I remember enjoying the first half of The Storied Life of AJ Fikry because of the quirky characters, but I found the second half disappointing.

  4. I haven't read this one yet because Zevin's Birthright series is one of my favorite trilogies of all time and I'm terrified I won't like this one in comparison. THAT SAID, I think you should give that series a try (it starts with All These Things I've Done). It's a quieter series that is criminally under-rated and I think you'll appreciate all of the sly things Zevin does there with the near-future setting, contemporary tone, and the unapologetic and decidedly feminist heroine.

    1. Ooo, is that the one with the chocolate heart on the cover? I didn't read it when it first came out b/c whoever was ordering books only ordered book 2 ... ???? I'll bump it up my list.


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