The Borrower: A Novel

  • By Rebecca Makkai
  • Viking
  • 324 pp.
  • Reviewed by Lisa E. Smilan
  • July 11, 2011

On a road trip with a 10-year-old boy, a young librarian confronts her past and begins to understand herself.

Children’s librarian Lucy Hull is taking a spontaneous road trip with Ian Drake, a 10-year-old patron of the public library where she works. The two have made an unusual connection, and both need this time away from work, home and school for different reasons — Ian to escape a world where his parents censor his reading material and send him to “anti-gay” classes, Lucy to escape the mundane world she has created for her 26-year-old self. How lovely for Lucy to have the freedom to take to the open roads and have time for self-reflection. How wonderful for Ian to have time away from home to sort things out.

But Ian’s parents have no idea where he is. Through temper-tantrums and manipulation, Ian has convinced Lucy (or she has convinced herself) that she should not call his fundamentalist Christian parents to tell them Ian has run away to the library, and that she should instead take him for a ride so he can calm down before returning home. It takes him longer to calm down than Lucy anticipates. For 10 days, the two travel from Missouri to the U.S.-Canada border. The longer the escapade continues, the more Lucy feels like a kidnapper.

The narrative is Lucy’s, five years after the fact. Initially, it is difficult to connect with the younger version of Lucy, who, at 26, has an excessive amount of residual adolescent angst. It may take some time to get inside Lucy’s head, but then we are suddenly there, not remembering how we got there. We learn that Lucy’s gay friend from high school, Darren, committed suicide sometime during their college years. Lucy has come to realize that she could have done something to help Darren, but she failed to go the extra mile, publicly stand up for him, make his world a better place. Her guilt has fueled her desire to help Ian, whom most everyone suspects is gay.

Ian’s mother, Janet Drake, finds books like Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, with its magic spring water, to be highly inappropriate. Despite Janet’s requests that Lucy give Ian only books with “the breath of God” in them, Lucy sneaks copies of Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time into Ian’s backpack. These are all books that contemplate life and death and challenge young readers to think far outside the box. Ian’s mother is attempting to wedge him into a box — a certain way of life, a certain set of values — but it appears that she wholeheartedly believes this will provide the best framework for his future. And after all, she is his mother.

Lucy, ever judgmental, sees the world in black-and-white terms. For example, she seems to view all Republicans as stupid, self-centered bigots. Her self-righteousness shines through when she presumes to know what is best for a 10-year-old boy whom she hardly knows, while demonizing his parents for having philosophies that differ from her own. If even this reviewer, a lifelong Democrat, is slightly taken aback by Lucy’s commentary, I can only imagine how Republicans and other right-leaning individuals might feel. This book is probably not for them!

Lucy’s recognition and acknowledgment of her own flaws are an important part of her journey of self-discovery. Ultimately, she tries to separate what she thinks is right from what she knows is right: Somehow, the latter holds up against her own somewhat harsh self-reflective scrutiny. She knows that at one time or another we all need to stand up and question outdated moral codes and declare, “Wait, no. That can’t be right.” She also knows that often it is the books we read that give us the knowledge and fortitude to do so. Throughout the story, her one unwavering belief is that books can save lives.

Initially, it is difficult to embrace Ian, as he is both obnoxious and irritating, with his feigned tantrums, precocious questions, and annoying habit of bouncing on his toes. When Lucy tells Ian that they must call someone to let them know he’s safe, he grins and replies, “if you call them, I’ll say you kidnapped me from the library last night, and you wouldn’t let me go.”

But when Lucy asks Ian whether he plays any sports, he tells her that at recess he plays something called “Ian Ball,” but he can’t show her how it’s played because there’s no dumpster in the room. This is the moment where the reader’s heart goes out to Ian and instantly all is forgiven. While the nature of the dumpster experience is left rather murky, the troubling reference is clearly a sad and ugly reflection of his life at school. It helps us understand why Ian is so desperate to know a world different from his own.

The road trip allows Lucy an opportunity to finish growing up and to contemplate the idea of truth versus fiction. Along the way, she and Ian make stops at her parents’ apartment in Chicago and the home of old family friends in Pittsburgh. These two visits give Lucy an opportunity to reconsider her Russian-Mafioso father’s truths (and lies) and to understand how they have influenced her own self-image. Speaking of more than just the novels she knows, Lucy succinctly sums it up: “It gave me pause, for a moment, that all my reference points were fiction, that all my narratives were lies.” We all have different truths, Lucy realizes. And as much as she would like to change her own world, and Ian’s world, she realizes that she has “failed to understand that one reason you can’t change who you are is that you can’t change where you’re from.”

Quite fitting for a story told by a children’s librarian, the novel is cleverly sprinkled with allusions to well known, well loved children’s books such as Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon. There are also several humorous references to “old maid” librarians, like the Mary of George Bailey’s alternate universe in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Marian in Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.”

Kudos to Rebecca Makkai on creating an original story with forward momentum, and a bit of added mystery that keeps us on edge along the ride. The characters are unique and, ultimately, quite engaging. I highly recommend this thought-provoking debut novel.

Lisa Smilan writes novels for adults and young adults and serves on the editorial board of the Washington Independent Review of Books. She is an attorney and lives in suburban Maryland.

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