THE BORROWER by Rebecca Makkai

Book Quote:

“I was becoming a fabulous liar. It was like I’d been born to the outlaw life. If I lost my library job, I could go pro.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (JUL 9, 2011)

Debut novelist and elementary schoolteacher Rebecca Makkai combines a wily, madcap road trip with socially poignant conundrums and multiple themes in this coming-of-age story about a twenty-six-year-old children’s librarian, Lucy Hull, and a ten-year-old precocious book lover, Ian Drake, in Hanibal, Missouri. (Guess who is coming-of-age? Answer: not so evident.)

Lucy isn’t entirely sure that she’s a reliable narrator—part of our reading pleasure is to figure that out. She tells us in the enigmatic prologue “I’m not the hero of this story.” Is she the villain? And, if she is not the hero, who is? The answers turn out to be thoughtfully complex and yet exquisitely simple for those of us–and only for those of us–whose love of reading is almost religious (upside down pun there).

Lucy has been sneaking laudable books to Ian, whose evangelical, anorexic mother, Janet, will only allow him to read books “with the breath of God in them.” No books with content matter related to magic, witchcraft, wizardry, the occult, weaponry, adult content matter, evolution, or Halloween. No authors/books that question authority and explore complicated issues, or that have morally ambiguous themes. Oh, or contain a “sensitive” male character.

Janet has enrolled her son in the Glad Heart Ministries youth group with Pastor Bob, in order to de-gayify her son for his proto-gay behaviors. Pastor Bob is a “former” homosexual married to a “cured” once-upon-a-time lesbian, who believes that “sexuality is a choice, not an identity.” His goal is to “speak to our children before the secular media has reached them with its political agenda.” It makes your hair stand up and splits your ends.

One morning, when Lucy opens the library, she discovers that Ian has been camped out there all night. This sets the stage for the fugitive scene–adult and child on the lam, playing spontaneous road trip games and mimicking passages of children’s books. (OK, the reader needs to suspend a little judgment here on how Ian maneuvers this, but this is fiction, so waive a little realism for a little magic, capisce?).

Lucy, as it turns out, has some, ahem… issues. A Chicago-raised Mount Holyoke graduate with a Russian émigré father and Jewish-American mother, she has a predilection for flight and self-flagellation. Her dad was a revolutionary, and his shady business dealings and questionable money sources have been a cause of discomfort all of Lucy’s life. It seems she also has a knack for prevaricating. And indolence. Her adult decisions have, up to this time, been aimed at not taking action in her life, other than putting distance between her and her parents. She’s “a would-be revolutionary stuck at a desk.”

As Lucy and Ian cross state line after state line, she has moments of doubt and dread about her hapless journey with a juvenile. Although she tries to remind herself that Ian maneuvered this odyssey, she acknowledges her complicity. Lucy wants to save Ian from the clutches of religiosity. She impugns Janet Drake for wanting to censor a highly intelligent boy’s mettle. But is she trying to censor the censor? She has doubts. But the voice of her insurrectionist father vexes her.

There are flaws, admittedly. Yet, they are easy to ignore when trumped by the nimble narrative and crack characterizations. Librarians beware—Lucy doesn’t have her Masters of Library Science. And, as mentioned above, the inadvertent “kidnapping” scene raises a few eyebrows of believability.

But this beguiling story captivates, nonetheless. Ian and Lucy have a tart, biting relationship rather than a sentimental, precious one. Moreover, Makkai deftly weaves in children’s literary lore, including The Wizard of Oz, Madeline, Charlotte’s Web, and many others, bolstering the narrative. Moreover, Lucy’s subversive ire for social liberty and freedom of expression are ripe and riveting. Makkai pushes the envelope, and the reader may wonder if the story will wax pedantic, but the author doesn’t disappoint with easy answers; she doesn’t manipulate Lucy’s rant into her personal crusade.

The Borrower appeals, inevitably, to the ardent reader whose love of books starts with the mind but voyages to the soul. It is a journey of self-discovery and sanctuary, finding home wherever you are, and the courage to face your future.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 30 readers
PUBLISHER: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (June 9, 2011)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Rebecca Makkai
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


July 9, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Character Driven, Debut Novel, Reading Guide, US Southwest

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