Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Borrower, by Rebecca Makkai

Lucy Hull is a children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri. Ian Drake is one of her best customers, a ten-year-old boy who loves to read. When his mother limits his reading to books "with the breath of God in them," Lucy helps Ian smuggle other books out of the library, checking them out on her own card after he hides them in his clothing. When she learns that his parents have enrolled Ian in a youth group run by Glad Heart Ministries, an organization "dedicated to the rehabilitation of sexually confused brothers and sisters in Christ," she becomes deeply concerned, remembering a high school friend who committed suicide over gender identity issues. When she discovers that Ian has slept in the library after running away from home the previous evening, she somewhat inexplicably loads him in her car and starts driving.

Their days on the road take them to Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Vermont; along the way, they stay with Lucy's Russian immigrant parents, as well as an associate of her somewhat shady father. As Lucy tries to figure out what exactly she is going to do with Ian, she is also grappling with understanding her family's history of rebellion and retreat. While she was always suspicious of her father's stories of his life in Russia, she is stunned when his associate Leo gives her a radically different version of the story, one that calls into question the family mythology.

The Borrower is full of allusions to both adult and children's literature. Some are subtle (I'm sure I missed many), but others are obvious. For example, Makkai several times presents passages written in the style of a well-known children's book (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Goodnight Moon, Alice in Wonderland, etc.). She also references such classics as The Great Gatsby, Lolita, the Oz series, Huckleberry Finn, and many more. Deciphering these references is one of the most enjoyable parts of reading the book.

The Borrower clearly has a message about acceptance, tolerance, and the power of reading. What Makkai is saying through Lucy's ongoing ruminations about her family history and her own ill-advised decisions is less obvious. Because both Lucy and her father chose to act out their protests in ineffectual if not counterproductive ways, does it mean that Lucy should simply give up the idea of helping others/changing the world to simply "stamp and scan"? I think not, and I can't really believe that Makkai does either. But the book might lead you to think she does.

Favorite passage:
It was the universal revelation of adolescence, that the adults around you do not have all the answers--and like all children growing slowly and painfully into their mature selves, he'd realize it again and again over the next few years.

It gave me pause, for a moment, that all my reference points were fiction, that all my narratives were lies.

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