My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When this novel begins, the odds are against A.J. Fikrey's chances of happiness. He is widowed, having lost his wife in an accident when she drove an author home after an appearance at A.J.'s bookstore on Alice Island. He should have been driving, he thinks, but he can't drive; he has absence seizures. One plate of hurled vindaloo changes everything: when he wakes up after a binge, it has been cleaned up, but his prized copy of Tamerlane has been purloined.
Absence is a key trope in this story. The philandering husband of Ismay, A.J.'s sister-in-law, is often absent. His longtime friend, a publisher's representative, has died. He has decided to drink until he and his store are gone, too.
But - one almost-Christmas day, there is a sudden presence: an abandoned toddler girl, Maya, with a note pinned to her Elmo doll saying that her mother hopes the child will grow up to be a reader. "Funny world, right?" muses Lambiase, the police officer. "Someone steals a book from you; someone else leaves you a baby."
A.J. does not believe in fate, but he does believe in responsibility. He shocks everyone by deciding to adopt Maya. The social worker shocks herself by agreeing to the adoption, reasoning that she always loved orphan stories like Anne of Green Gables. Ismay, Lambiase, Amelia (the new publisher's rep), and the townspeople soon coalesce around the widower and the preternatually-verbal little girl, who tells A.J. she loves him after he sings "99 Luftballons" during her baths. "I warned her about giving love that hasn't yet been earned," he says, "but honestly, I think it's the influence of that insidious Elmo."
Maya thrives in the bookstore, which also thrives as her new father adds children's books, books for the women's discussion group (Bel Canto, after he runs out of books with the word "wife" in the title), and a new group for Lambiase and his police friends. A bottle of Purell sits on the counter ("please disinfect before handling the infanta"), and Maya sits on the floor, learning to read and write. Love has appeared where it was least expected.
Each chapter is introduced by A.J., who loves short stories and has written an appreciation of some of the most elegant of the genre. (If only there were an anthology of these stories, to deepen the reader's appreciation for the elegance of this book!) The theme or circumstance of each story, including selections such as "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" (Salinger) and "What Feels Like the World" by Richard Bausch) is mirrored in the storyline. ("A Diamond As Big As the Ritz" is a favorite, but not The Great Gatsby, which A.J. thinks was "overgroomed... like a garden topiary.")
What began as absence leads to happiness. A.J. expresses his gratitude when he "closes his eyes and thanks whomever, the higher power, with all his porcupine heart." So will the reader, who should remember that nothing in well-plotted fiction is accidental. Pay attention. It will be worth it.
I received a galley of this book from NetGalley. This is a fair review.
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