August 11, 2011 by 1 Comment
Lucy Hull, protagonist of Rebecca Makkai‘s adult novel The Borrower (Viking, June), is a sardonic twenty-something children’s librarian. Her favorite patron, ten-year-old Ian, runs away to escape his parents and the anti-gay youth group they’ve stuck him in. Like Claudia Kincaid before him, Ian realizes that he needs somewhere to run away to, and the library presents a safe haven overnight. Lucy discovers the runaway when she arrives early the next morning, then finds herself on an unexpected, unauthorized road trip with Ian. It’s never quite clear to Lucy or the reader who’s kidnapping whom. Woven throughout their madcap escapades (featuring the Russian mafia, ferrets, a holy relic, and the Canadian border) are homages to the canon of kids’ books, with cameos by The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Hobbit, Goodnight Moon, Madeline, The Wizard of Oz, and more.
Ten pages in, I texted a children’s librarian friend: “You HAVE to read this book.”
Lucy and Ian’s adventures are occasionally heart-wrenching and often hilarious, but no matter how outrageous their exploits, their actions feel organic and believable. Makkai’s frequent literary allusions seem like secret messages from one children’s lit lover to another: have you read this? how about this one? While I have a hard time picturing a more perfect audience for The Borrower than myself and my twenty-something Simmons grad friends, it’s not just a novel for the children’s lit in-crowd. Decoding The Borrower‘s literary references does make up a significant part of the reading experience, but the books Makkai alludes to are mainstream enough that most readers will be able to share in the fun. Lucy’s relatable early-adulthood ennui and insecurity make her a sympathetic character; Ian captures that delicate balance of adorable and annoying only a precocious pre-teen can truly embody.
Chicagoist has a great article on the novel here. Also check out Screwy Decimal, the blog of New York public librarian Rita Meade. Her tongue-in-cheek dispatches from library land could have been written by Lucy herself — particularly “Postcards from the Edge (of the Reference Desk),” detailing an encounter with Meade’s own feisty ten-year-old patron.