Saturday, February 11, 2012

265 (2012 #10). The Borrower


by Rebecca Makkai,
read by Emily Bauer

I have mixed feelings about this book.  First, a brief summary:

Twenty-six-year-old Chicago-bred Lucy Hull graduates from Mount Holyoke with an English degree and no clue what to do next.  She e-mails a list of alumni contacts provided by her school's career development office and is offered a job as children's "librarian" by an alcoholic director who needs a quick replacement in a small town public library in Missouri.

One of Lucy's patrons is ten-year-old Ian Drake is an avid reader and quite possibly gay, the son of fundamentalist Christian parents who have him enrolled in a religious program designed to turn him straight. When Ian runs away from home, his first stop is the library, where Lucy finds him early one morning. While trying to take him home, they wind up taking a road trip in her car, with Lucy thinking she must continue on with Ian so she doesn't appear to have kidnapped him.

Try to suspend belief and follow this far-fetched plot, because the characters are intriguing, there are some funny situations and passages, and the book explores some controversial issues (censorship, fundamentalist so-called Christianity, and anti-gay "de-programming" among them).  There are some good messages in the story, such as the transformational nature of books and reading, and about coming to terms with your family and heritage.

A few things that bothered me about this book right off the bat:


  • Rebecca Makkai does state (page 20) that Lucy does not have a master's in library science, but I'm afraid that detail will be missed by most readers.  Ditzy Lucy is NOT a good representative of the librarian profession.  Makkai readily admits on her website that her library experience consists of two summers in circulation in a small college library (and indeed, I'm pretty sure Lucy was just a circ clerk in the college library where she later works, as one MUST have at least a master's in library science from an accredited program to have to title of librarian in any legitimate college and university in this country).  To be fair, I have worked in libraries, even in good-sized cities, where the children's "librarian" does not have that master's degree. And Makkai said, "It was more important to the story that Lucy be an 'accidental' librarian than that she have her credentials in order."  However, I still cringed at how bad stupid Lucy was making librarians look, because she was called a librarian and not a library associate or library assistant.

Some things I really liked about the book:

  • Makkai does a wonderful job of weaving in humorous riffs on and allusions to well-known children's books, such as Laura Numeroff's If You Give a Mouse A Cookie, Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon, E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, Eric Hill's lift-the-flap Where's Spot, Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline books, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series.  In her job, Lucy also reads aloud from and recommends to Ian many other children's classics, including a number of Newbery winners. "Recommending books to children has been one of the best parts of my teaching career (and one of the few things I really have in common with my narrator)," said Makkai.  There are also references to and hints of Lolita and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (and not just because Lucy calls her Missouri workplace Hannibal).
  • I thought Emily Bauer was fine as the narrator for this audiobook.  Other reviews have complained about her reading, but her girlish voice was perfect for the immature Lucy, as well as for the often-loud, sometimes-annoying, very-precocious Ian.  Her Russian accents were a little over the top, and her voice too high-pitched for male voices, but then, the story is told in first person from Lucy's view.  Bauer was very expressive and I truly believe she added to my ability to suspend belief and enjoy this story for what it was.

Lucy and Ian's road trip bogs down a bit in the middle, but I kept on listening because I wanted to know if and how Lucy would get out of her predicament.  This is very much a coming-of-age story for Lucy.

It's a coming-of-age for Makkai, too - an experienced short story writer, this is her first novel.  I would read her again.  I'd recommend this book with reservations - be willing to take the plot with a grain of salt.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library, and a hardbound copy for reference was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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