“THE BORROWER: A NOVEL” Rebecca Makkai Viking Adult 336 pages $16 hardcover
Rebecca Makkai’s debut novel “The Borrower” from Viking penguin is a story for people who love stories. The tone for the book is set in the first two lines of the novel when the narrator, Lucy Hull, explains, “I might be the villain of this story. Even now, it is hard to tell.” “
The Borrower” is self-deprecating and uncertain and founded on a lineage of great travel stories from “The Odyssey” to “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The book is quick to reference both of these stories, and Lucy, as a children’s librarian, has thousands of literary references-from Eric Carle to Vladimir Nabokov-at her disposal. But this is not solely Lucy’s narrative; it is the story of her and Ian Drake’s travels from the fictional town of Hannibal, Mo. to Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Vermont.
Ian is a 10-year-old patron of the library. An assiduous reader, Ian is mocked for being different from the rest of the boys in his class, and his evangelical parents fear that he is gay. They send him to Pastor Bob’s Glad Heart Ministries in the hope of turning him straight. Lucy sees the detrimental effect these classes have on Ian, but it isn’t until Ian decides to run away from home and stay in the library that she takes action. She takes Ian in her car and drives him around to amuse him. What starts out as indulging in a child’s fantasy turns into an accidental kidnapping and cross-country trip.
Lucy the self-described stereotypical librarian and Ian the introverted bookworm are not the only quirky characters in this tale, however. There is also Tim, the gay theater manager who leases Lucy an apartment above the theater, Glenn, the aspiring pianist who unknowingly draws inspiration from old commercial jingles, Lorraine, the alcoholic library director, and Lucy’s Russian immigrant parents.
Lucy’s father, with his endless often fabulated stories of growing up in the USSR and involvement in Chicago’s Russian mafia, serves as a dark contrast to the upbeat, albeit illegal exploits, of Lucy and Ian. Through a black market chocolate factory, potato-stuffed tailpipes, and a grandfather who exiled himself to Siberia, Lucy begins to see the power of stories in her own life and starts to question her own motives and culpability in kidnapping Ian.
It is this moral ambiguity that is the book’s saving grace. Instead of turning into a simple didactic tale with a righteous, liberal moral about the horrors of forcing an identity on a child, The Borrower leaves the reader with questions instead of answers. The book takes a hard look at perceptions of homosexuality, the role community plays in childrearing, and the difference between good intentions and a deserved motive, all while giving the reader an entertaining story with a conclusive ending.
While “The Borrower” is certainly a story for people who love stories, it is not solely a book for people who love books. The prose is simple, warm, and funny. Makkai borrows from the colorful discourses of children’s literature and has short sections that mimic the prose of Dr. Seuss’s “Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo,” Laurie Joffe Numeroff’s “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” and even a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style chapter with an unachievable happy ending. The effect is not only humorous, but also shows that this is a book with heart, a book that cares deeply about stories and wants people to read them.
There is the occasional issue of pacing, particularly in the middle, and some may take offense to the morals at play in the book, but overall Makkai’s debut novel is a strong, quick, entertaining read. If you have ever lost yourself in a book or wanted to run away from home as a child, this is a book for you.
Jacob Euteneuer is a graduate student in English at KSU.