A bookstore on an island

This movie comes from a New York Times Bestseller novel of a kind said to be rare nowadays: cheerful. It follows the classic curve of the grumpy Gus who finds joy, and then also some tragedy, because, that's life. The book is by YA writer Gabrielle Zevin, and its central figure is the titular (East) Indian man (the irresistibly amiable Kunal Nayyar) who runs a bookstore on fictitious Alice Island off Cape Cod (called, you won't guess, Island Bookstore). The store is doing badly, his wife died in an accident two years before, he is drinking himself to oblivion on wine, he says once a week, others say every night. He is very depressed, and his most valuable possession, an original edition of Poe's Tamerlane, is stolen. Then Maya, a two-year-old mixed race girl, is dropped off at the store by her mother, who cannot cope. And guess what happens. A.J. adopts Maya. And the unusual job (for a grumpy widower with a bookstore) of being a father pulls him right out of his funk.

Makes sense, right? Of course the story has to fudge some details, such as how this depressed man, so grumpy with everybody, including the bright young publisher's rep Amelia, Amy to her friends (Lucy Hale, who's very good, especially at the end) whom he'll later fall in love with, and she with him, would do an 180 turnaround to become patient and caring; and how the reportedly smart Maya can be quite so articulate, nonetheless; and how in a matter of months the bureaucratic obstacles around foster parenting are surmounted - the action two years forward when it's done. The important part is the fun of the process, the stuff author Gabrielle Zevin wanted to focus on. A big thing is independent bookstores, and reading. Each chapter of the source book begins with the title of a short story or a book and a note from Fikry describing what he likes about it, and introducing characters by what they like to read. Later, the friendly police chief, Lambiase, played by David Arquette, starts his own "Chief's Choice" book club, sort of for maverick readers. There's a local novelist, Daniel Parish (Scott Foley), who is friendly, and when Maya is a young teenager, she has writing aspirations, and enters a local short story context.

That story by Maya, which she reads aloud as a finalist, and we see reenacted, and is a reconstruction of how she was abandoned and found by her mother, is one of a number of distinctly odd moments, including watching a car accident occur. The jumps in time are disorienting, spring on us without quite the context we need. Another weird element is The Late Bloomer, the memoir of an old man that is Amelia's favorite new book on her publisher's list when she first meets A.J., which is meant to show there can be a right time and a wrong time to read a book. This book also turns out to be not what it seems.

What about Maya? There are three Mayas, age two, Charlotte Thanh Theresin; age six, Jordyn McIntosh, and age teen, Blaire Brown, and they're all formidable, but I'm not prepared to say they seem like the same person.

A grumpy bookseller adopting an abandoned toddler - that's a new wrinkle. Some of the other literary stuff, like talking about the books you read or don't read (somebody hates Movy Dick, Fikry scoffs at Poe, and the eccentric drunken book reading - feels familiar. The Cape Cod architecture is easy on the eyes. Christina Hendricks from Mad Men is here, as Ismay, or Izzie, Daniel the writer's wife, A.J.'s late wife's sister, who becomes Lambiase's girlfriend and is a woman with a secret. It all gets pretty complicated. The author of the novel did the adaptation and she may have been reluctant to leave anything out.

One thing that endeared the film and the author to me, just for the name-drop, is Lambiase's "good cop story" about finding out a delinquent boy who was skipping school. It turned out he was sneaking off each day for several weeks to read Infinite Jest on the sly. That is a book, for sure, that shows how amazing and even life changing and worth hiding away from everyone for reading a book can be. The star of this show in the end is reading, and hence, Island Books.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, 105 mins., from Vertical Entertainment, is in theaters Oct. 7, 2022.