Review: The Borrower, Rebecca Makkai

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 enrols Ian in gay rehab classes with Pastor Bob. So when Lucy discovers Ian hiding in the library after hours and intending to run away, she goes with him. Lucy pretends to believe Ian’s story that he’s really just running away to his grandmother’s house in another state, but the truth is, Lucy just wants to show Ian a world beyond his mother’s rigid boundaries. Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower is a funny, entertaining book, about the love of reading and the transformative potential of stories.

I love so many things about this book. Both Lucy and Ian are obsessed with reading, which is something to which I can totally relate. While it appears to be only Ian running away, it soon becomes clear that Lucy is also trying to escape something. I love Lucy’s parents; the father especially is such a colourful character, a member of the Russian mafia with so many stories about his childhood. Lucy has always accepted these stories as true, albeit exaggerated. Her realization that her father’s stories may not have been as based on reality as she believed when she was younger is a beautiful, poignant portrayal of our own growing up. I grew up reading a lot, and it kinda sucked realizing high school wasn’t anything like Sweet Valley or finding out Carolyn Keene (who was one of my favourite authors growing up) isn’t even a real person.

The Borrower is a tribute to children’s literature, with lots of references to wonderful books. For example, Lucy’s father ran a chocolate factory in Russia. (What avid reader would not immediately remember his/her experience reading Roald Dahl?) There’s also a chapter written in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure, another of my childhood favourites, and one chapter begins in the style of “This is the house that Jack built.” The story of The Borrower is interesting enough to read, but it’s these little winks to beloved children’s books that I loved the most.

I also love that Ian himself challenges Lucy’s perceptions of him. For example, Lucy sees a scar and immediately assumes Ian is being physically abused, but it turns out not to be the case. Ian glumly borrows some Bobbsey Twins books because Lucy assures him they’ll meet his mother’s “breath of God” requirements even though they’re horrible (as a Bobbsey Twins fan myself, I have to say I’m offended by that). So Lucy assumes Ian only likes to read the kinds of books she does (admittedly also a good list, including The Hobbit), only to be shocked that Ian also enjoys reading a Christian YA series. Lucy can’t understand how Ian can “fall” for that, which I think also shows her own limitations. I liked this because it shows that, although Lucy appears to be the hero, wanting to break Ian free to be himself, she also imposes her own preconceived notions on what he should be.

Not sure how I like the ending. The Borrower ended with a whimper, which felt like a let down after such building up through most of the book. Yet at the same time, the ending also felt very fitting. Like, how else could their adventure have ended, and how else would a book extolling the virtues of reading close its story? The Borrower is a fun, breezy read, and a wonderful homage to the magic of children’s literature. Love reading? This is worth checking out.

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