The Book Borrower: A Novelby Alice Mattison
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/b>
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.
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The Book Borrower
Chapter OneThough 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.
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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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.
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.