This book was recommended to me by a coworker as “a perfect story of a marriage”. I read it in one sitting and went through an emotional wringer while riding an emotional roller coaster while seriously needing a glass of wine and therapy. Trigger warning: if you have ever been disappointed, betrayed, disillusioned or in any way wronged by a lover/spouse and gone through the painful process of recovery from that trauma, this book is going to bring it all back in exquisitely excruciating detail. But you should probably read it anyway. It’s that good.
The cat on the cover of this book does not even come close to the description of the cat inside the book. But that’s a minor detail. This was another one of those books that I have no idea why I put it on hold, but I did, and I enjoyed it well enough once it came, so why waste time wondering? Think Storied Life of A.J Fikry meets Bridget Jones’ Diary meets the Gen Y/Millennial equivalent of Generation X, and you’ll have a pretty good feel for this book.
Maggie, our protagonist, moved to San Francisco from South Carolina during the dot-com boom and started a company with her best friend since childhood, Dizzy, a software engineer. But the company becomes successful and is purchased by a larger company, and Maggie’s job is outsourced. Dizzy (still employed) tries everything to get Maggie “out there”, scheming to get her involved with a book group of high-powered women for the networking and nagging her to follow up on various opportunities. But Maggie is far more interested in spending her days in the decrepit used bookstore (Dragonfly Books) owned by her landlord, Hugo, where she spends all day every day reading romance novels. She knows she needs a job – her money is running out and she is growing increasingly desperate as her mother begs her to move home and get married like a good girl – but she just can’t seem to find the motivation.
Hugo gives Maggie a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to read for the book (networking) club, and inside Maggie finds love notes written in the margins by Henry and Katherine, presumably two customers of Dragonfly Books. The notes show a growing intimacy between the two and end with a proposed meeting, and Maggie is entranced – who were/are Henry and Catherine? Did they ever meet? Why did they stop writing messages in the book? In an attempt to impress one of the book club members who might be able to help her find her a job, Maggie offers to help Hugo make the Dragonfly more successful by promoting it on social media. She posts some of the notes between Henry and Catherine, and business booms so enthusiastically that Maggie eventually receives an incredibly lucrative job offer…working for another bookstore across the street that is part of a commercial chain. But in the process of working at the Dragonfly, Maggie has fallen in love with the used bookstore’s quirky charm and become fiercely loyal to its clientele. Soul searching ensues….
Oh, and there’s a cute boyfriend who she can’t fully enjoy because of past issues with her parents’ marriage, repeating conflict with a cranky employee of the Dragonfly who resents her interference, and some self-confidence problems from always playing second fiddle to Dizzy’s genius to spice things up. Oh, and a psychopathic store cat. You’ll be a little annoyed with Maggie for her habit of (repeatedly!) shooting herself in the foot (in both life and love), but you’ll root for her anyway.
I didn’t expect to like this book, but so many people at work were reading it that when an audio copy turned up on the Bestseller shelf, I decided to give it a whirl. (I was between audiobooks, and growing a wee bit tired of the Stuff You Missed in History podcast. Which is excellent, usually, but one can only listen to so much history and I’ve been overindulging. But I digress. But wait, isn’t that what parentheses are FOR?)
I should have hated this book. It’s a mass of clichés – crotchety depressed widower hermit adopts an abandoned baby, meets a plucky younger woman and is forced to join the human race again, and in the process enlists and transforms his entire town (Silas Marner, anyone?) – but it’s still a good story, and the literary references (the main character is a bookstore owner and reading snob) make it worth reading. It’s like a love story for books, and an anthem for what librarians call “reader’s advisory” and booksellers call “hand selling”, which is essentially the art of matching up readers with books they will enjoy. As a person who really believes that there is a book for every reader and a reader for every book (well, except maybe Moby Dick or Ulysses, which no one should ever be forced to endure), I found it thoroughly charming. As a lover of most of the same books that A.J. loves, I was tickled every time he managed to talk his customers into reading something I myself might recommend to them (at one point he gets the police chief to read one of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, and the police chief LIKES IT).
Oh, and on the side you get some other subplots – A.J.’s rare copy of Tamerlane (which he was hoping to sell to finance his retirement) is stolen near the beginning of the story, and it takes until the end of the novel to figure out who took it. The parentage of A.J.’s adopted daughter Maya, abandoned in the bookstore by her suicidal mother, is likewise revealed along the way. Throughout the novel, A.J writes notes to his daughter (mostly book recommendations), which are especially heartbreaking when you find out why he’s been writing them to her.
The best part of this story is the community the author creates. After you are done reading it, you will miss the people you have met on Alice Island, and want to go and visit Island Books to see what’s new on the shelves.