How can I possibly tell you how much I loved this book without sounding like I’m shilling for my friend? Rebecca Makkai and I attended Washington and Lee University together, though she was a year ahead of me. She was Miss Prism to my Reverend Chasuble in our collegiate production of The Importance of Being Earnest. She is a genuine friend. It was a massive point of pride to me when her short story “The Briefcase” made it into 2009’s Best American Short Stories anthology. When she announced she was working on a novel, I offered to review it, mostly because I’m a giant fucking mooch and wanted the free advanced reader copy. I did it with the same caveat that I make to most indie filmmakers — I’ll check it out, and if I hate it, I’ll just opt not to review it because they don’t need some sonofabitch like me smashing it with Hulk fists. Then I found out Rebecca was getting published through Viking. And then I found out that Richard Russo was lauding her as one of the leading future voices in American fiction. And then I realized she has actually been in the Best American Short Stories anthology FOUR fucking times in a row, counting this year. So, shit, this isn’t suddenly just “my friend’s novel,” it’s a goddamn four-star legit-o-mit contender.
Ludicrous isn’t quite the proper rap name to cover the premise to The Borrower, but it’s damn close: a young librarian kidnaps one of her favorite patrons in order to prevent his fundamentalist parents from continuing to send him to a notorious “gay-away” program. In this day and age, with Amber Alerts and Code Adams and other A-named children whose names grace terror-threat protocols, it’s seems virtually impossible that a grown woman could take someone else’s child and go on a Huck Finn interstate wandering. Makkai’s pretty savvy on this point too, and so like Adam Green with Frozen, she sits down and carefully finds all the possible gaps in logic and cleverly fills them in. If her novel was going for that quirky indie-film vibe, I’d slaughter it, but here, all the intricate little oddities actually become a series of Chekhovian guns. Ian’s obsession with origami, Lucy’s possible Russian mobster heritage, her living over a community theatre and her wacky gay neighbors, her musician love interests, her being a children’s librarian — all of these little nuances actually enhance the story.
Makkai peppers her novel like a pop-culture infused Dostoyevsky, this maddened “criminal” constantly ruminating not on existentialism but rather the works of Beatrix Potter and Roald Dahl. It’s like a Where’s Waldo of kiddie lit, filled with oblique and subtle references to Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar to constant references to The Wizard of Oz. But it even goes beyond that to other pop culture. When Lucy starts a love interest with a not-so-slick concert pianist and composer, I thought nothing of it, but then later Makkai flips her answer key and you realize, “Holy shit. A librarian being reluctantly romanced by a musician. It’s the motherfucking Music Man.” Makkai gets a little exuberant in her riffing, to the point that some of the chapters are psuedo-mockups of chapters from “Choose Your Own Adventure” books or the “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” and to me, it’s just barely toeing the line into “a bit much,” but I think it’s just another intriguing quirk of our narrator and heroine, Lucy Hull.
A lot of folks are going to kind of hate Lucy. It’s pretty easy to. She’s an unreliable narrator — but with The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Lolita among my favorite novels ever, I eat that shit with a spoon. Bullshit narrators, liars and charlatans are one of the best reasons to re-read novels. Going back over knowing what you know, trying to figure out if maybe it was all lies or half-lies, that’s the ultimate enriching readability of a novel.
Sure, Lucy’s kind of a spaz, living in Hannibal, Missouri as a children’s librarian at age 26 so that she doesn’t have to live off the potentially illicit finances of her “maybe” Russian mob connected father. She’s flighty and prone to fits of distemper like a skittish puppy in a room full of mourners for his owner. Lucy lacks backbone, allowing herself pretty much to get steamrolled by most of the people in her life — including her young charge, Ian. She’s the ultimate wallflower with staircase wit — prone to those steering wheel soliloquies full of vitriol where she expounds on the piece of mind she should have served piping hot. Her heart’s in the right place, but her head is up her ass, and it takes her almost 300 pages to realize how fucking crazy she’s being. Let’s face it — she more or less steals a child across state lines because she thinks she needs to protect him from his parents and their fundamentalist arrogant ways and nurture him into becoming the gay bon vivant that must just be hiding beneath that ninja turtle shell. But the world’s full of childless English majors who know better than you about how you should be rearing your child. You’re reading one right now.
But there’s much to admire about Lucy. I would never deign to belittle The Borrower with the chick-lit label, but it’s actually got the kind of romantic subplot that you’d actually want in the genre. In so much as the romance is just that, a subplot. As a librarian, it’d be easy to make Lucy some sort of desperate-to-be-coupled man-hungry romantic buffoon desperately waiting for Prince Charming or Mr. Big to swoop through the picture books and whisk her away to Narnia or Oz or Dubai. Worse yet, she could have been relegated to frigid spinister, some sort of prim ice queen that only needs the hot lust of a well-coiffed pastry chef or rehab-recovering alt-rock musician to free her from herself. For such a doormat, she’s got a wonderful confidence in her love life. She staves off the affections of her cripple comrade in arms Rocky, a wheelchair bound would-be suitor who takes her to movies and asks her to attend weddings with him. But she goes out on a date with the pianist, has a fling, and continues to date him with something of a refreshingly cavalier attitude. It’s nice to finally have a female character who isn’t getting harped on to answer the alarm of her biological clock or learning calligraphy for the invitations to a wedding for which there is no groom.
And then there’s Ian Drake, the ten-year-old who loves the library. Ian is a remarkable character. He’s smart, he’s frustrating, he’ll throw tantrums — he’s a kid. And he’s neither some sort of aggravatingly adorable mensch nor Queen-of-Hearts red-faced maniac. He’s a homeschooled child, under the brunt of his devout parents, but he’s also very spiritually devoted. It’d be easy to assume that a ten-year-old boy who loathe religion, but Ian prays and tries to live correctly. He’s an eager reader, and he’s clever, but he’s also a kid who gets scared and freaks out. Again, Makkai’s taking some serious risks with Ian, because he’s not what you’d expect. He’s a lovely catalyst for Lucy, and actually makes her more interesting.
At times, you’re not quite sure where the hell Makkai’s going with The Borrower, and there are points where the meandering gets langorous. But that’s about the time you realize Lucy’s trying to live out a children’s story, and when Lucy realizes that not everyone gets rescued by the woodcutter and lives happily ever after. The ending is what it has to be, and all the Russian literature influences lurking beneath the sunshine and lollipops and trolls and ogres and kings and wizards of the children’s books start to settle in. Again, I don’t want to call this a “beach read” but it’s the kind of book you’ll want to take to the beach. It’s breezy but not flimsy, layered without being dense, clever but just this side of too clever. It’s heartwarming but not saccharine, curious but not curiouser, and has a wonderful cast of side characters. There are some excellent truths to behold without forcing some sort of existential aha moment. The Borrower gives some outstanding insight as to what you really know about the people in your lives.
But do you believe me? Or am I an unreliable narrator? Many a complaint has been leveled at me for being a little too easy on books. And it’s true. I don’t know why I’m more forgiving to literature than cinema. I’d like to think that I’ve at least earned a reputation that I’m pretty fucking blunt when it comes to my opinion and I’ll always feed you the honest truth. Yet, this is my friend’s novel. So I definitely read it through those lenses. The greatest compliment I can give to Rebecca Makkai is that the premise alone was so interesting that I would have read it even if I didn’t know her. Had I just skimmed the back cover while browsing a bookstore, I would have added it to my list. Is it a perfect novel? Well, of course not. But it’s pretty damn good. And I’m pretty sure there are a bunch of you wacky Pajibans that this is going to definitely satiate. And there are going to be plenty more that cry foul. And hey, que sera sera, or however you say it in French. But if I can put this novel in the hands of a few hundred folks that love it and spread the word, then I’m doing my job as a critic. And as a friend to a worthy writer who deserves success.