Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book Review: "The Borrower" by Rebecca Makkai

Boy, did I love this book.

Lucy Hull is a children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri. In general, she lacks drive—she keeps doing her job because she enjoys it but she doesn't really want to pursue anything else, she keeps personal relationships at arm's length, and she doesn't care that her life is fairly boring. But all that changes as she deals with one of the library's most voracious readers, 10-year-old Ian Drake. When Ian's evangelical mother tells Lucy she only wants Ian reading books that contain "the breath of God" in them, as well as those that focus on stereotypically masculine characters and don't include magic or fantasy, Lucy helps Ian check out the "forbidden" books in secret. And when Lucy finds out that Ian's parents are sending him to religious classes in order to cure him of any potential SSAD (same-sex attraction disorder) when he gets older, she doesn't know how to help him.

One morning she arrives at the library to find Ian camped out, with a knapsack of provisions (including his pool pass if he needs to show identification). Somehow he part-convinces, part-threatens Lucy to take him on a road trip, and Lucy sees this as an opportunity to free Ian of the restrictions being placed upon him by his mother. Yet the road trip, like much of Lucy's life, doesn't have much of a plan, and Ian starts trying to lead her all over the country. They head from Hannibal through Chicago, to Pittsburgh and Vermont, as Lucy tries to rationalize her actions and draw Ian into telling her he needs her help. And along the way, Lucy learns a little bit more about herself and her family, which she has always kept a distance from, and how what you think is the truth is never quite absolutely true.

While clearly implausible in many ways, this was a terrific story. It had the potential to be preachy but it skated around the controversial issues fairly well. And while I felt that Rebecca Makkai made Lucy's Russian family and friends seem a bit stereotypical, I felt that the rest of the characters in this book were unique, complex and fallible—you wanted to know their story and you grew to care about them even if you didn't like them 100 percent. I would have liked to have known what happened to Ian as he grew up, even though that might have killed some of the book's magic, but overall, I really, really enjoyed this. Any book about the love of books does right by me.

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