And introducing . . . my first post on a Book Talk selection! Book Talk’s choice for its inaugural work is The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai.
The Borrower follows Lucy Hull, a children’s librarian in small-town Missouri (we Kansans call it Misery, because we are clever). Lucy has a favorite patron named Ian, an eleven year-old boy who is dramatic, friendly, and an avid reader. The only problem with Ian is his mother. She does not want him to read fantasy or anything without a “breath of God” in it. Lucy begins to worry about how Ian’s parents treat him, especially since most of her fellow employees think he will turn out to be gay. When Lucy comes into the library one morning and finds Ian camped out and ready to run, she promises to take him home. Instead, they begin a long road trip where both are running from their lives and running towards a more satisfactory ending to their story.
I both liked and did not like this book. I loved the narrative play on children’s stories, little vignettes where Lucy would describe her and Ian’s adventures as if she were writing different types of children’s books. The narration itself was mostly clever, told in a first-person account where Lucy defends her “crimes”. Makkai’s written Russian dialect was good and descriptive; I could hear it clearly and understand what was being said. Lucy’s Russian father managed to not be stereotypical, though perhaps a little widely drawn. (He was a mafia man, of course.)
One of the themes of this book was how the mind can protect you from the truths of the world, let you see things that you want to see. I touched on this same thing in my review of Mina’s new book, but Makkai takes a different route. For instance, Lucy’s father has always told her stories about Soviet Russia and his endeavors against the communist government. When Lucy discovers the real truth behind one of her father’s favorite stories, it repaints her entire view of him and his struggles against Soviet Russia. It is the truth behind the story, and the resultant moral shake up, that makes her wonder if running with Ian is really the right thing to do. The story had always shaped her beliefs in rebelling, so when it crumbles, she no longer knows how to behave.
I did have a couple of gripes with this book. One was the political commentary. Lucy didn’t like Bush (the book took place sometime during his presidency) or his politics. We get that with the first mention. But she shoves it down the throats of her readers, coming off as preachy and unrelenting. I don’t mind political commentary when there is a point to it, when it drives the story forward. This, however, did nothing but stall the story and added nothing to her character. One time would have showed you her political views. In fact, Lucy is pretty outspoken from the beginning, so any reader would have been able to deduce her opinions.
My second was the wide criticism of Christianity. I am a Christian. I am not radical, unkind, or small-minded. I realize that some people are. Just as some people in all different beliefs are small-minded and closed to other opinions. We as humans are opinionated, and I get that. I just don’ t think Makkai understands that. Ian’s parents were Evangelicals who sent their ten year-old son to an “anti-gay” class. Whatever your opinions on homosexuality, most people would agree that few children have any idea what they think or believe at that age. It is an age of discovery, exploration, and curiosity. To be so young and pigeon-holed – both by Lucy and by his parents – can be more damaging than anything else. But simply because Ian’s parents are Christian and treat him the way that they do, suddenly all Christians are bad. Makkai does not explicitly state that, but it certainly is easily inferred by the reader. Of course, is not Lucy’s absolute belief that she is the one in the right the exact same thing? It is prejudice against a belief both ways, without discussion or an open mind.
You can see now why I liked and disliked this book at the same time. It was clever, but bogged down by its message. A writer once told me that if you aim to have a message, then you will only come across as preachy. I think this is exhibited in Makkai’s work; the novel had potential but became so focused on a perspective that the heart of the story was lost.
The book ends on a sad note, where Lucy remarks that people do not change. How depressing to be stuck in one mindset forever, never growing or adapting to your circumstances. Except, change is inevitable, even if Lucy cannot see it by her journey’s end.