Some days, who doesn’t want to hop in the car and keep driving – as far and as long as you can? I remember mornings when blue skies and endless roads held a promise of escape, and it was hard to turn into that parking lot for work. In Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower, twenty-six year old children’s librarian Lucy Hull, unexpectedly finds herself on a road-trip with her favorite library patron, ten-year old Ian Drake.
The story centers on two characters: Lucy, the only daughter of Russian immigrant parents, who is doing her time at her first job since graduating from Mount Holyoke as an English major; and Ian, the library regular who devours any books Lucy suggests. Unfortunately, Ian’s mother, suspicious of fictional influence, does not approve of all of Lucy’s selections. Lucy knows books, and so does Makkai, as she cleverly inserts classic book titles and songs-for-the-road, incorporating the storyline from some favorites you will recognize.
Lucy is happy to conspire with Ian to help him read books about anything he is interested in – sometimes, checking out the books to herself to maintain his cover, other times subversively slipping Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing into his backpack. Mrs. Drake has enrolled Ian in Pastor Bob’s anti-gay camp, and her list of readings is confined to Pastor Bob’s suggestions.
When Ian packs his knapsack, runs away from home, and hides out in the library, Lucy decides to cooperate in his escape plan – and the road trip begins. The odyssey continues from Missouri to Chicago to Pittsburgh and Vermont. Makkai uses other characters along the way to add humor and convenient ploys that work to help Lucy in the end. When Lucy and Ian make a rest stop at her parents’ luxurious apartment on the lake in Chicago, Lucy’s Russian immigrant father tells his story of his harrowing and heroic escape from Russia. Later, when she visits her uncle in Pittsburgh, the story gets retold, and the family’s connections to shady underworld characters is confirmed. Having connections can be very helpful when you are in danger of being arrested for kidnapping.
Makkai cleverly spins the story so that you vacillate between wondering if Lucy and Ian will be caught, and hoping that they will get away. Makkai’s plays on words are sometimes funny: a scene in a New England bar when a man who has had too much to drink calls her a libertarian, and she thinks she – the librarian – has been discovered; Lucy listing the seven deadly sins – Sloth as measured in calories not burned; Avarice – apparent sense of entitlement; Lust – untalented musician slept with…
It all works out in the end. If you can laugh and just enjoy the ride, you will enjoy the adventures of this unlikely pair, despite – or maybe because of – Makkai’s obvious political musings.