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“How could any [one] of any age resist Rebecca Makkai’s charming The Borrower?”
—O, the Oprah Magazine
“Makkai is clearly a lover of the public book-lending institution. Her careful, attentive approach seamlessly weaves literary lore into her unusual and touching story of a librarian fighting for social liberty and freedom of expression.”
—The Washington Post
A children's librarian in Hannibal, Mo., finds herself on a long, strange trip in Makkai's ruminative first novel.
Lucy Hull feels sorry for Ian Drake, the most devoted attendee of her read-aloud on Friday afternoons. Ian's reading is severely circumscribed by his mother's fundamentalist strictures, which rule out everything from Roald Dahl to Harry Potter. Lucy is further appalled when she learns that Ian—whom everyone assumes is gay, though he's only 10—is forced to attend weekly classes with Pastor Bob, who specializes in rehabilitating "sexually confused brothers and sisters in Christ." So when Lucy finds Ian hiding in the library one morning with a knapsack, she decides to help him run away. They wind up on a meandering journey that passes through her parents' home in Chicago, where Lucy picks up some cash from her father, an affluent Russian immigrant with vaguely unsavory business ties. En route to Vermont, where Ian claims his grandmother lives, Lucy tries to figure out how she got herself into this mess and how she can avoid being arrested as a kidnapper. Makkai takes several risks in her sharp, often witty text, replete with echoes of children's classics fromGoodnight Moon toThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz,as well as more ominous references toLolita.Lucy and Ian don't bond in the warm and fuzzy way of Hollywood movies, and there's no big payoff where he recognizes and renounces his mother's bigoted ways. He remains a smart, difficult kid whose inner thoughts are opaque. This is Lucy's story, and we have known from the opening pages that her road trip will shake her loose from Hannibal; the interest comes from discovering how and why. The novel bogs down for a long time in the middle with an excess of plot, but the moving final chapters affirm the power of books to change people's lives even as they acknowledge the unbreakable bonds of home and family.
Smart, literate and refreshingly unsentimental.
I might be the villain of this story. Even now, it’s hard to tell.
Back at the library, amid the books and books on ancient Egypt, the picture the children loved most showed the god of death weighing a dead man’s heart against a feather. There is this consolation, then, at least: One day, I will know my guilt.
I’ve left behind everyone I used to know. I’ve found another library, one with oak walls, iron railings. A college library, where the borrowers already know what they’re looking for. I scan their books and they barely acknowledge me through their caffeinated haze. It’s nothing like my old stained-carpet, brick-walled library, but the books are the same—same spines, same codes on yellowed labels. I know what’s in them all. They whisper their judgment down.
The runaways, the kidnappers, look down from their shelves and claim me for their own. They tell me to light out for the Territory, reckon I’m headed for Hell just like them. They say I’m the most terrific liar they ever saw in their lives. And that one, old lecher-lepidopterist, gabbling grabber, stirring his vodka-pineapple from the high narrow shelf of N-A-B, let me twist his words. (You can always count on a librarian for a derivative prose style): Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what I envied, what I thought I could fix. Look at this prison of books.
Before this all began, I told Rocky that one day I’d arrange my books by main character, down through the alphabet. I realize now where I’d be: Hull, snug between Huck and Humbert. But really I should file it under Drake, for Ian, for the boy I stole, because regardless of who the villain is, I’m not the hero of this story. I’m not even the subject of this prayer.
Every Friday at 4:30, they gathered cross-legged on the brown shag rug, picked at its crust of mud and glitter and Elmer’s glue, and leaned against the picture-book shelves.
I had five regulars, and a couple of them would have come seven days a week if they could. Ian Drake came with chicken pox, with a broken leg. He came even when he knew it had been cancelled that week, and sat there reading aloud to himself. And then each week there were two or three extras whose parents happened to need a babysitter. They’d squirm through chapters eight and nine of a book they couldn’t follow, pulling strings from their socks and then flossing their teeth with them.
That fall, five years ago, we were halfway through Matilda. Ian came galloping up to me before reading time, our fourth week into the book.
“I told my mom we’re reading Little House in the Big Woods again. I don’t think she’d be a fan of Matilda too much. She didn’t even like Fantastic Mr. Fox.” He forked his fingers through his hair. “Are we kapeesh?”
I nodded. “We don’t want your mom to worry.” We hadn’t gotten to the magic part yet, but Ian had read it before, secretly, crouched on the floor by the Roald Dahl shelf. He knew what was coming.
He skipped off down the biography aisle, then wandered back up through science, his head tilted sideways to read the spines.
Loraine came up beside me—Loraine Best, the head librarian, who thank God hadn’t heard our collusions—and watched the first few children gather on the rug. She came downstairs some Fridays just to smile and nod at the mothers as they dropped them off, as if she had some hand in Chapter Book Hour. As if her reading three minutes of Green Eggs and Ham wouldn’t make half the children cry and the others raise their hands to ask if she was a good witch or a bad witch.
Ian disappeared again, then walked up through American History, touching each book on the top right-hand row. “He practically lives here, doesn’t he?” Loraine whispered. “That little homosexual boy.”
“He’s ten years old!” I said. “I doubt he’s anything-sexual.”
“Well I’m sorry, Lucy, I have nothing against him, but that child is a gay.” She said it with the same tone of pleasure at her own imagined magnanimity that my father used every time he referred to “Ophelia, my black secretary.”
Over in fiction now, Ian stood on tiptoes to pull a large green book from a high shelf. A mystery: the blue sticker-man with his magnifying glass peered from the spine. Ian sat on the floor and started in on the first page as if it indeed contained all the mysteries of the world, as if everything in the universe could be solved by page 132. His glasses caught the fluorescent light, two yellow discs over the pages. He didn’t move until the other children began gathering and Loraine bent down beside him and said, “Everyone’s waiting for you.” We weren’t—Tony didn’t even have his coat off yet—but Ian scooted on his rear all the way across the floor to join us, without ever looking up from the book. We had five listeners that day, all regulars.
“All right,” I said, hoping Loraine would make her exit now, “where did we leave off?”
“Miss Trunchbull yelled because they didn’t know their math,” said Melissa.
“And she yelled at Miss Honey.”
“And they were learning their threes.”
Ian sighed loudly and held up his hand.
“That was all two weeks ago. BUT, when last we left our heroine, she was learning of Miss Trunchbull’s history as a hammer thrower, and also we were learning of the many torture devices she kept in her office.”
“Thank you, Ian.” He grinned at me. Loraine rolled her eyes—whether at me or Ian, I wasn’t sure—and tottered back to the stairs. I almost always had to cut Ian off, but he didn’t mind. Short of burning down the library there was nothing I could do that would push him away. I was keeping Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing behind the desk to sneak to him whenever he came without his babysitter. Almost every afternoon for the past week he had run downstairs and stuck his head over my desk, panting.
Back then, before that long winter, Ian reminded me most of a helium balloon. Not just his voice, but the way he’d look straight up when he talked and bounce around on his toes as if he were struggling not to take off.
(Did he have a predecessor? asks Humbert.
No. No, he didn’t. I’d never met anyone like him in my life.)
Whenever he couldn’t find a book he liked, he’d come lean on the desk. “What should I read?”
“How to Stop Whining,” I’d say, or “An Introduction to the Computer Catalogue,” but he knew I was kidding. He knew it was my favorite question in the world. Then I’d pick something for him—D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths one time, The Wheel on the School another. He usually liked what I picked, and the D’Aulaire’s launched him on a mythology spree that lasted a good two months.
Because Loraine warned me early on about Ian’s mother, I made sure he read books with innocuous titles and pleasant covers. Nothing scary-looking, no Egypt Game. When he was eight, he came with a babysitter and borrowed Theater Shoes. He returned it the next day and told me he was only allowed to read “boy books.”
Fortunately, his mother didn’t seem to have a great knowledge of children’s literature. So My Side of the Mountain crept under the radar, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Both books about running away, I realized later, though I swear at the time it never crossed my mind.
Posted June 17, 2011
It's too bad B and N has up only the Publishers Weekly review for this book, which is the only somewhat negative review I've seen (I researched before pitching to my club which reads new hardcover fiction the month it comes out). This book is hard to describe, but marvelous. It's about a children's librarian, and it has some of those same fantastical elements, larger than life characters, and the fast pace you would remember from the children's books you loved, but this is definitely for adults or teenagers at the youngest. There's a sort of "kidnapping" involved which is not really a kidnapping at all, and you could debate for weeks what actually happened. This is actually one of the things I think makes it a great pick for book clubs, and I imagine when it comes out in paperback a lot more clubs will be picking it. My club will read it next month and I'm sure it will stir a lot of debate, in a good way. Really this was a fast read, and I stayed up till 2 one morning to finish it, which is saying a lot (for me).
17 out of 17 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 11, 2011
This is one of those books that really sticks with you. If you are a voracious reader, as I am, or if you have young children, as I do, you will catch (and be able to place) many of the literary references that the author includes in the book. Those make the book more interesting, but catching them is certainly not required to appreciate the novel's meaning or, certainly, to enjoy it. They just, in my opinion, make the ride more worthwhile.
References aside, this is a fabulous book. It's relentlessly engrossing, but it's not your typical summer "beach read". It's so much more than that. It's a book lover's book in the best possible way, and not just because of the literary references. It's one of the first books I've read in a long time that I literally haven't been able to put down. And now that I've finished it, I wish I had read it more slowly so that I could still be enjoying it.
A unique and very interesting plot, relatable and entertaining characters, and a plethora of "morals of the story". All spun together by someone who clearly has a way with words; Makkai is a fabulous storyteller, and I eagerly await her next work. Read this book now. You won't regret it.
15 out of 15 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 17, 2011
Seriously, I bought five copies. I got this myself on my Nook, and then I bought four more copies for friends (three LGB friends who I thought would feel a kinship with one of the main characters, and one for my mother-in-law, who's a librarian like the other main character). It's truly a book for book-lovers, in the sense that it will take you back to what you first loved about books when you were a kid visiting your local library. The boy in the book, Ian, is ten and probably will be gay, and his parents are putting him in religious reprogramming with a celebrity pastor. It's really funny and well told, and I cared so much about what would happen to Ian by the end of the book. Totally a page turner, and so highly recommended.
9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 1, 2011
Rebecca Makkai's first novel is an intriguing and very engaging road trip story, owing equally to Lolita and Huckleberry Finn, with assistance from nearly every notable children's and YA book of the last century or so. On the surface this appears to be a story about a young, liberal English major-turned-librarian trying to help out a kid she perceives to be in trouble. Upon deeper inspection, though, you'll see a self-aware, unreliable narrator trying to fit the messiness of reality into the tidy confines of a story. It's a book about running away and growing up, about who we are and what we can change about ourselves, about youthful ideals and adult realities. It's really a pretty big effort, and I think Ms. Makkai succeeds admirably.
4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 14, 2011
I Also Recommend:
Young Ian is ceaselessly borrowing books from the library. Novice librarian Lucy develops a sort of maternal or sororal affection for him and winds up borrowing him for a road trip. Or does Ian borrow her? It's a dual coming of age story. Ian and Lucy learn (or perhaps Lucy relearns) that our elders don't always have the answers and that life is a continuing journey of self-discovery. Rebecca Makkai blends nostalgia for youth and children's literature with big questions about identity and family. The Borrower turns out to be an uplifting novel filled with humor, suspense and characters I'd love to spend a day with.
1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 17, 2011
I did not really enjoy this book but I always finish a story once I start it even if I'm not thrilled or don't like it. That being said, I gave it 3 stars for originality although the premise is so far fetched it was totally unbelievable; a Librarian who is pretty much unhappy in her present-and past-life who kidnaps-but not really-one of her child patrons and gets away with it, totally! I did enjoy the literary blurbs, having recognized all of them. At times it was amusing with an underlying moral of acceptance. I would not recommend this one to anyone I know.
1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 14, 2014
I give this book a zero rating. I finished it thinking it had to improve. It was borrrrring, way too long and the story line was way unrealistic. Boy, I sure wasted my money on this dud.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 7, 2014
It’s not often I come across a book that I enjoyed so much, but can’t really write down words to convey my reaction. Instead of trying to write my review right away, I’ve given it a few days. I let the book play over in my head. I’m happy to say that the story is still fresh in my mind and I almost want to reread it already.
Makkai have written an incredible début novel. The Borrower is filled with a cast of diverse and enjoyable characters, a mild suspense that keeps a reader flipping page after page, and a coming of age story of a unique sort.
Not only is this an enchanting tale of Lucy and Ian’s cross-country trip/run from the law, it’s also a coming of age story about Lucy finding out about herself, her family, and contemplating something as large as the our nation of runaways. There are many different levels to pick this book apart from and each is as well-written as the others.
I probably didn’t say much helpful in this review, but as I said, it’s hard to put my reaction into words for this book. Lucy and Ian are great characters, I was sad that this book didn’t have another 300 pages of them on an adventure. But I’m pleased with everything I read. Makkai will definitely be added to my list of favorite authors, even after reading only her début novel.
Posted June 25, 2012
Posted March 20, 2012
Posted March 20, 2012
I overall enjoyed the book, but glad I got it from the library and didn't purchase it. I too was so worried about how it might end that I guess I didn't appreciate alot of the adventure and lessons learned throughout the story. It was just okay.
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 4, 2011
This book literally had me laughing and crying. It is a wonderful and quirky story of a young woman and adolescent boy both coming of age, using their resources and good nature to defy convention in ways that work for them. It should be on more shelves.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 12, 2011
Posted September 11, 2011
This story was a bit like a train wreck. You knew what was going on wasn't quite right, but you couldn't stop reading. The characters were very interesting. I was afraid of the ending, but was pleasently surprised. This was a good book, not great, but definately one you should read; very thought provoking.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 30, 2011
3.5 stars Children's librarian Lucy just can't figure out her young patron, Ian Drake. The ten-year-old seems to long for attention and is eager to read more books than most children his age are interested in, yet Lucy senses something is just not right. His parents are righteous Christians who won't allow Ian to read certain authors or books; the ingenious boy manages to slip a few forbidden books into his backpack or down the front of his pants anyway. After Lucy discovers that Ian has hidden overnight in the library, the two embark on a journey in her car. Lucy justifies the trip as keeping Ian safe from who-know-what is going on at home; she also seems to be filling a void in her life. The adventure is fun but far-fetched; who would take a child she barely knows (kidnap him) in such a manner? I did enjoy the book, though.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 24, 2011
The Borrower reminds us that our children do not belong to us. They are only on loan for a short while and we can respect their individuality and appreciate their beauty by allowing them to show us who they are. Rebecca Makkai lets us feel the anxiety of breaking the rules and none of the consequences. Serious issues, serious fun.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 6, 2011
The Borrower features great characters in a wonderfully written story about a librarian and a 10 year boy who find themselves in an unexpected situation. You do have to initially suspend some belief as a reader to allow for the fact they end up in the situation they are in. But as you get caught up learning about the characters through the great writing in this book, it is an easy leap of faith to make. I couldn't put it down and was disappointed to see the story come to an end.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 5, 2011
It is rare that I agree with a Publishers Weekly review, however PW was right on the money with this one. I became frustrated with the extraneous writing. The story is fun. Lucy the librarian is a bit annoying at times. Overall, an entertaining read. Good, but not great.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 22, 2011
Posted January 7, 2012
No text was provided for this review.