This is a book I very much wanted to like. It’s a sweet book. It’s nicely written. It’s a love letter to the power of reading, the transformative nature of books and childhood imagination. Yet, I don’t think I’ll remember much about it in a few weeks….
Young librarian Lucy Hull wants to help ten-year-old book lover Ian Drake, who has a lively imagination, but whose mother wants him to read only books “with the breath of God in them.” Mrs. Drake also enrolls Ian in gay kid rehab classes with dodgy Pastor Bob (plus she’s anorexic so she must be mean). So when Lucy discovers Ian hiding in the library one morning, with a napsack and a plan to run away, she goes with him. Or she takes him. Or he takes her. We are never really sure.
In fact, there are a lot of things in this novel about which we are never really sure.
The characters, for one thing. They are slight, vague wisps of real people. Lucy is a supposedly beautiful, smart twenty-something woman. Yet she has no love life of which to speak and is stuck in a small town job she hates but does nothing about. Or does she love her job? It’s hard to know. We are never really told. Ian is supposedly gay. ‘Flaming’ says one character. Is he? We are never really told. He doesn’t come across as such. Lucy is convinced he is being abused at home. Is he? Who knows? An incriminating scar turns out to be nothing of consequence and when the unlikely road trip comes to an inevitable end, Ian is perfectly happy to go home and seems to be unchanged by the trip despite Lucy’s intentions. I couldn’t buy into the central conceit of the book and as such, couldn’t buy into the book as a whole. As for Rocky, Glenn, Lorraine, or Tim, we never know enough about them, apart from broad brush strokes, to care or even to believe in their relationships with and motives towards Lucy.
Where it does shine however, is in its role as tribute to children’s literature, with references to lots of wonderful, classic children’s books. The BFG, The Wizard of Oz, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the hat is doffed to them all and Rebecca Makkai beautifully celebrates the books we all collectively share. One chapter is written in the style of a ‘quest’ book – of the ‘if you think this, go to question 5’ style – yet these little tricks can be a touch twee, giving a hint of Creative Writing Class.
The ending was also a quiet one. In fact, for me, the book lost its sparkle once Lucy/ Ian became the kidnapper/ kidnapped. I get the message. We can’t outrun our past; we can’t change by running away. Lucy and Ian don’t get remade as some misfit family whose bond of books is greater than the bond of blood. I don’t even know what way it could have ended to be a better book.
I actually feel bad being so hard on The Borrower. It’s a sweet read. It’s trying to be magical and it extols and celebrates great children’s literature. None of these are bad things, but they don’t necessarily make for a great read. Maybe I’m asking for too much but I think Rebecca Makkai has a much better book coming in the future.
Read On: A book. What else?!
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