Book Review: 'The Borrower' by Rebecca Makkai

July 19, 2011

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

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(Photo courtesy of Rebecca Makkai)
WBEZ's book critic Donna Seaman reviews Rebecca Makkai's first novel, The Borrower.

Rebecca Makkai is an elementary school teacher living north of Chicago, and a short story writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, and in editions of the annual The Best American Short Stories edited by such luminaries as Salman Rushdie, Richard Russon, Geraldine Brooks and Dave Eggers. Makkai’s stories have also been featured on Public Radio International’s Selected Shorts. Her first novel is The Borrower.

Ian Drake is a smart, funny, energetic, and articulate 10-year-old who loves to read. Lucy Hull is a 26-year-old children’s librarian, and the edgy, hilarious, and subversively irresponsible narrator in The Borrower.

Lucy finds precocious and wound-up Ian immensely engaging (as will the reader), and likes nothing better than steering him toward engrossing and provocative books. That is, until his mother appears and explains that Ian must only read books with “the breath of God” in them. Her list of forbidden topics includes witchcraft, wizardry, Halloween, and the theory of evolution. Worse yet, his parents are sending Ian, in whom every adult sees a future gay man, to Pastor Bob Lawson. This man guides “sexually confused” young people away from the “wrong” path. Pastor Bob asserts that “sexuality is a choice,” and that only heterosexuality is “Godly.” Lucy is appalled and stymied. But what can she do?

It doesn’t take long for Ian to run away from home, and take refuge in the library. The young booklover and the frustrated librarian hit the road in Lucy’s crummy old car, leaving Ian’s small Missouri hometown behind. They embark on a wildly inappropriate, most likely illegal, and desperately improvised escape.

Literary call-outs abound in The Borrower. Huckleberry Finn is a guiding light. The Oz books are avidly recommended for any kid who feels as though his or her entire being is the equivalent of coloring outside the lines. Makkai also works in some jittery allusions to Nabokov’s Lolita as Lucy tries to figure out what the heck she thinks she’s doing, crossing state lines with a 10-year-old boy whose family must be frantic about him. Is she borrowing the boy because she’s lonely and confused?

Ian and Lucy meander, lie, sneak, and panhandle their way from one grimy motel to another as they head East and North. They stop in Chicago and crash at Lucy’s parents’ Lake Shore Drive apartment. This place is the plush opposite of her creaky digs above an old theater where she can’t flush the toilet during shows because the walls are so thin. Her voluble father is a secretive Russian, who fled the USSR under dire circumstances and became rich via “shady business dealings.” He dazzles Ian with stories of the old country, gives Lucy a wad of cash, and arranges for the runaways to deliver a mysterious package to a buddy in Pittsburgh.

Ian is having the time of his life. It’s as though he’s living inside one of his beloved adventure books. Lucy is terrified as the search for the missing boy intensifies and their money runs out. She is also suffering a string of painful revelations. She discovers how little she knows about people close to her. How fogged her perceptions are, how superficial and self-serving her assumptions can be. But of one thing Lucy is absolutely certain: reading is good. She believes fervently “that books can save you.”

Charming, funny, original, thought-provoking, and moving, Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower embraces outsiders and dissenters, and celebrates the power of our imagination and our empathy. This warmly entertaining, picaresque novel in praise of personal freedom and books leaves us marveling over literature’s magnificent paradox: that in fiction dwells profound truth.