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The Book Borrower: A Novel
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The Book Borrower: A Novel

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by Alice Mattison

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On the day they first meet in a city playground, Deborah Laidlaw lends Toby Ruben a book called Trolley Girl, the memoir of a forgotten trolley strike in the 1920s, written by the sister of a fiery Jewish revolutionary who played an important, ultimately tragic role in the events. Young mothers with babies, Toby and Deborah become instant friends. It is a


On the day they first meet in a city playground, Deborah Laidlaw lends Toby Ruben a book called Trolley Girl, the memoir of a forgotten trolley strike in the 1920s, written by the sister of a fiery Jewish revolutionary who played an important, ultimately tragic role in the events. Young mothers with babies, Toby and Deborah become instant friends. It is a relationship that will endure for decades—through the vagaries of marriage, career, and child-rearing, through heated discussions of politics, ethics, and life—until an insurmountable argument takes the two women down divergent paths. But in the aftermath of crisis and sorrow, it is a borrowed book, long set aside and forgotten, that will unite Toby and Deborah once again.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
A charmer...one of those uncommon writers who are genuinely tickled by the ids and egos they commit to paper.
New York Times
In deceptively quiet, guileless prose, she has described the mind numbing routine of child-care and the fraught, complex relations of men and women. Only Margaret Atwood (in Cat's Eye has written as knowingly about the frienship between women. Emotionally wrenching, beautifully realized work.
New Yorker
This excellent novel weaves the story of a 1921 trolley strike...Mattison is concerned with the small decisions and coincidences that alter the course of our lives. Are they accidents, or impulses born of something deeper? Mattison's observations are so minutely compelling that each one feels like a shiny object, once lost but found unexpectedly.
Wall Street Journal
An ambitious and original novel...The author's determination not to tie things up is refreshing.
Washington Post Book World
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The pleasures, intimacies, tensions and failures of female friendship frame this subtle, psychologically rich novel, which chronicles the volatile relationship between two women and highlights issues of loyalty, sacrifice and guilt. In brisk, energetic prose, Mattison (Hilda and Pearl) investigates the prickly territory between affection and unconscious jealousy, avowals of devotion and secret betrayals, commitment and selfishness. On the day in 1975 when they meet in a Boynton, Mass., playground with their respective young children, Deborah Laidlaw loans Toby Ruben Trolley Girl, a book about a tragic trolley-car accident that occurred in the town in 1920. Ample, embracing, generous Deborah is a Catholic earth mother. Ruben (she thinks of herself only by her surname) is a harder person, Brooklyn-born, rough-edged, subconsciously resentful, Jewish. Despite their apparent incompatibility and Ruben's competitive streak, the two women sustain a deep attachment over two decades, interrupted twice when Ruben causes Deborah grief (and her job) by denigrating her teaching ability (a profession they both share). But an essential affinity always draws them back together, and they debate existential questions in a quirky sort of verbal shorthand, until the day when Deborah declares to Ruben: "You have a kindness defect,'' and admits she's frightened of Ruben's harsh assessment of herself and others. Suddenly, Deborah's death in an auto accident and the reappearance of the book Ruben borrowed long ago (passages from which have been interspersed in the narrative) connect. Trolley Girl's protagonist--an unrepentant anarchist who caused the deadly accident when she was young--turns out to be an elderly sculptor already entwined in Ruben's life. Through her, Ruben achieves insights into the insidious ways unconscious anger can undermine relationships. Mattison constructs her layered plot with the skill of a gem-setter, showing small facets of Ruben's growing understanding of her own failings as a friend and human being, and as she finally understands Deborah's legacy of tolerance and hope. Agent, Zoe Pagnamenta, Wylie. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
When Toby meets Deborah at the playground, they strike up a conversation about their children and become friends. Deborah lends Toby a book about a trolley strike in the 1920s, which she reads sporadically and then puts aside and forgets. Twenty years later, after Deborah is killed in a car crash, the devastated Toby discovers that sculptress Berry Cooper, who features prominently in the book, is living nearby. Prompted to rediscover the book, Toby finally finishes it, thus coming to terms with Deborah's death. The novel unfolds in jerky fits and starts at ten-year intervals, and the parallel story lines interweave, showing how the past is inextricably linked to the present. The characters are well drawn and realistic, the language and culture vivid. A worthwhile follow-up to Mattison's 1997 hit story collection, Men Giving Money, Women Yelling.--Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Watch Hill Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
John Freeman
{A} powerfully told story, likely to become for the Atlanta child murders what Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five became for the firebombing of Dresden... These Bones is a brave achievement.
Time Out: New York
Daphne Uviller
Alice Mattison is a pro at creating profound connections between unlikely people, places and now, even books...a serious, significant examination of the institution of friendship.
Time Out: New York
Kirkus Reviews
Mattison's third novel (after Hilda and Pearl, 1995, etc.) is actually a successful graft of two tales: one written by a 1920s feminist and radical, the other about the woman who reads that "first book" in the late 20th century. While Deborah Laidlaw and another mother, Toby Ruben, look after their children in the park, Deborah lends Toby a memoir, Trolley Girl, recounting the Lipkin sisters' involvement in a 1921 trolley strike. Miriam Lipkin writes of her two sisters; Jessie, a young radical determined to support the strike, participates in protests and stands in contrast to quiet, cheerful Sarah, who is killed in a trolley collision. Later, Jessie is implicated in what is seen as a murder, and though she's acquitted, she's alienated forever from her family. Miriam, meanwhile, changed her name to Berry Cooper and enjoyed modest success as a sculptor. The "second book" deals with difficult, sometimes unpleasant people. Toby describes her friendship with Deborah from the '70s to the present, often behaving like a younger, respectful sister toward her. When she meets Deborah's husband, Jeremiah, in a drawing class, he tells Toby of Berry Cooper's career. After Deborah dies in an auto accident, Toby cautiously returns to the memoir she'd abandoned long ago. Berry then enters Toby's real life when her grown-up son Peter becomes a care-giver to the now-elderly artist, and Toby takes over when Peter disappears. Still grieving for Deborah, Toby also has to confront the possible loss of her son. It's through this ordeal that Berry serves as an oracular, nonsensical/wise guide. She's a wonderful creation, and Mattison writes her as a quirky, unpredictable spirit, simultaneously maintainingToby's grave meditations on her best friend's death. A rich, textured exploration of misfortune and its consequences: a book that will reward any reader willing to go slowly and absorb its course.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
P.S. Series
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Book Borrower
A Novel

Chapter One

Though she was pushing a baby carriage, Toby Ruben began to read a book, On a gray evening in late November 1920 and the wheel of the carriage a big, skeletal but once elegant Perego she'd found in somebody s trash rolled into a broken place in the sidewalk. The baby, tightly wrapped in a white receiving blanket, glided compactly from carriage to sidewalk. He didn't cry. Like his mother, the baby would be troubled more by missed human connections than by practical problems; also the three-second rule held: as if he were a fallen slice of bread, Ruben snatched him up and ate him. Kissed him passionately and all over, dropping the wicked book into the carriage. She put the baby back where he belonged and picked up the book, but she didn't read for at least a block. Then she did read.

On a gray evening in late November 1920, an observer who happened to be making his way up the hill from Dressier's Mills to the streetcar line that ran to the principal square of Boynton, Massachusetts, might have noticed a sturdy young woman hurrying through the mill s gates. The air was full of cinders, which must have been why she reached up to tie a veil over her face, though she did so with a gesture so casual, so obviously

Ruben had to cross a street. She closed the book. It was thin, with black covers, not new.

Want a book? a woman in the park had said. The woman wore a blue-and-white-checked dress like a pioneer s, but sleeveless. A wide neckline bared her freckled chest; with good posture she chased serious, muddy daughters in pink pinafores. Ruben s baby, Squirrel, was three months old. Go, Squirrel, go, Ruben shouted, just sothe woman, sweeping by, would speak.

What? Sunny hair rose and settled.

He's trying to put his thumb in his mouth.

The woman leaned over to look, her hair over her face, and Squirrel found his thumb for the first time. Excellent, said the woman, Deborah Laidlaw, straightening, then giving a push to the small of her back. She left her hand there. When their conversation, skipping some subjects, arrived at sex and husbands, Deborah said, Jeremiah has intercourse only to music.

Any music?

Folk songs.

It was 1975.

Fuck songs! Ruben was surprised to have said that. Her hair was dark red but thin, and she was shorter than this impressive Deborah. In the songs, Ruben supposed, people built dams, harpooned whales, or cut down trees, while Jeremiah penetrated his wife.

History. He'll read any book about history, said Deborah, but mostly trolleys.


Streetcars. He s obsessed with the interurbans. But there aren't any songs about trolleys.

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley! sang Ruben, flat who never sang for anyone but the baby.

Doesn't count. Want a book?

Jeremiah had found it in a used bookstore. He had begged Deborah to read it, but she only carried it back and forth to the park in a striped yellow-and-white cotton tote bag.

I am not interested in trolleys, said Deborah. Jeremiah has a theory about the person in the book. I don t care.

It s history?

A woman writing about her early life. About her sister.

It sounds interesting, said Ruben politely.

Good. You read it.

Ruben took the book: Trolley Girl, by Miriam James.

You can t keep it, said Deborah; Ruben was embarrassed but they d meet again. The daughters were Jill, who talked, and Rose, a big baby. Jill collected sticks and demanded to throw them into the river, a narrow glinty stream visible through trees. So Deborah carried Rose on her hip, striding away from Ruben, down a wooded slope where the carriage couldn't follow. Ruben watched: the back of a muscular woman walking in sandals, her dress disheveled by a child on her hip, and an earnest child running carefully, turning every few feet--this way!--as if only she knew where to find the river. Ruben had never been in this park, though she d lived in the city for most of a year, busy being pregnant. Forever she would have to remind herself that Deborah hadn't made the river.

She pushed her glasses up her nose and started for home. How snug and well-outfitted she would be when the Squirrel could ride on her hip, leaning confidently against her arm one short leg in front and one behind her--pointing like Rose, who used her mother as a friendly conveyance. Now he was only a package. At the sidewalk she opened the book. Then came--terrible to think about--the broken place, and then, when she d just begun the book again, the street to cross, and a dog she looked at. But now.

The Book Borrower
A Novel
. Copyright © by Alice Mattison. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Alice Mattison is the award-winning author of four story collections and five novels, including Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn. She teaches fiction in the graduate writing program at Bennington College in Vermont and lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

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Book Borrower 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
MommyOfMunch More than 1 year ago
As I read this book, my opinion changed many times. I found it hard to get into, mostly because it was terribly boring. The cover compares the author's description of women's frienships to Atwood, and I found this a terrible betrayal of Margaret Atwood. It follows the lifelong friendships of two women, punctuated mostly by ridiculous spats and dull interludes on a book about trolleys. The "twist" is painfully predictable and all of the characters are obnoxious or just so dull you don't care what happens to them. I don't recommend this book at all. Sometimes I regret that once I start a book I have a compulsion to finish it. I will never get the time back I spent trying to finish this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One year after reading The Book Borrower, it still stands out from the 50+ books a year that I go through. At the core is the difficult and dear friendship between two very different women raising their families in Boynton, Massachusetts from the 1970's through the early 1990's and the impact of an unusual woman of the early 1900's whose life is chronicled in a book called 'The Trolley Girl.' Be patient with the book and read it all the way through. Mattison has an unusual style and a way of telling a story that can be off-putting until you get used to it, but you will be rewarded. There is a purpose and a reason. The book and its meaning take awhile to permeate, which is surely a mark of good literature. It does come together in a way that is real, honest, and makes total sense. Mattison has a keen eye and ear as well as a compassion for the lives of ordinary people that elevates and deepens the meaning of own lives as well.