Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

An immature librarian takes a boy on a cross country road trip

Lucy Hull, a children’s librarian, is concerned about ten year old Ian Drake, avid reader and odd child. His Christian mother visits the library instructing Lucy to allow him only books that have “the breath of God in them.” Lucy also believes that his parents have placed Ian into a “pray the gay away" program, therefore she helps Ian smuggle home unapproved books and tries to be supportive of his nonconforming personality. One morning, after she discovers that Ian has spent the night hiding in the library, instead of calling the police or returning him to his parents, she takes him on a cross country road trip.  Huh? That implausibility, for me, dealt the story a blow from which it never recovered.

I found The Borrower disappointing because I have enjoyed Rebecca Makkai’s short stories – they are honest, direct and true. But this silly premise cannot support the story, despite the injection of the “road novel” structure. Plotting must create narrative tension and keep the reader reading. There is no narrative tension when the librarian is always by the side of the highway wringing her hands worrying about going to jail for kidnapping. I was just about to set the book down for good, when suddenly we were in Chicago with a whole family of Russian eccentrics, and I was transported by the energy. Temporarily bolstered, I kept reading, but the rest of Lucy and Ian’s trip felt forced.

The obvious parallel here is to Lolita, but Lolita has a base coat of tragedy. I also felt the narrator was unnecessarily mean spirited in her character depictions – the elderly drunken head librarian, the anorexic Christian mom. We never got a sense of the agony parents would feel at the disappearance of their small child, so in the end Lucy and Ian felt like game pieces moved around a big map of the United States.

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