The borrower : [a novel] /
Rebecca Makkai.
New York : Viking, 2011.
324 p. ; 22 cm.
9780670022816 (hardcover)
More Details
New York : Viking, 2011.
9780670022816 (hardcover)
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter

I might be the villain of this story. Even now, it's hard to tell.

Back at the library, amid the books and books on ancient Egypt, the picture the children loved most showed the god of death weighing a dead man's heart against a feather. There is this consolation, then, at least: One day, I will know my guilt.

I've left behind everyone I used to know. I've found another library, one with oak walls, iron railings. A college library, where the borrowers already know what they're looking for. I scan their books and they barely acknowledge me through their caffeinated haze. It's nothing like my old stained-carpet, brick-walled library, but the books are the same--same spines, same codes on yellowed labels. I know what's in them all. They whisper their judgment down.

The runaways, the kidnappers, look down from their shelves and claim me for their own. They tell me to light out for the Territory, reckon I'm headed for Hell just like them. They say I'm the most terrific liar they ever saw in their lives. And that one, old lecher-lepidopterist, gabbling grabber, stirring his vodka-pineapple from the high narrow shelf of N-A-B, let me twist his words. (You can always count on a librarian for a derivative prose style): Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what I envied, what I thought I could fix. Look at this prison of books.

Before this all began, I told Rocky that one day I'd arrange my books by main character, down through the alphabet. I realize now where I'd be: Hull, snug between Huck and Humbert. But really I should file it under Drake, for Ian, for the boy I stole, because regardless of who the villain is, I'm not the hero of this story. I'm not even the subject of this prayer.

Every Friday at 4:30, they gathered cross-legged on the brown shag rug, picked at its crust of mud and glitter and Elmer's glue, and leaned against the picture-book shelves.

I had five regulars, and a couple of them would have come seven days a week if they could. Ian Drake came with chicken pox, with a broken leg. He came even when he knew it had been cancelled that week, and sat there reading aloud to himself. And then each week there were two or three extras whose parents happened to need a babysitter. They'd squirm through chapters eight and nine of a book they couldn't follow, pulling strings from their socks and then flossing their teeth with them.

That fall, five years ago, we were halfway through Matilda. Ian came galloping up to me before reading time, our fourth week into the book.

"I told my mom we're reading Little House in the Big Woods again. I don't think she'd be a fan of Matilda too much. She didn't even like Fantastic Mr. Fox." He forked his fingers through his hair. "Are we kapeesh?"

I nodded. "We don't want your mom to worry." We hadn't gotten to the magic part yet, but Ian had read it before, secretly, crouched on the floor by the Roald Dahl shelf. He knew what was coming.

He skipped off down the biography aisle, then wandered back up through science, his head tilted sideways to read the spines.

Loraine came up beside me--Loraine Best, the head librarian, who thank God hadn't heard our collusions--and watched the first few children gather on the rug. She came downstairs some Fridays just to smile and nod at the mothers as they dropped them off, as if she had some hand in Chapter Book Hour. As if her reading three minutes of Green Eggs and Ham wouldn't make half the children cry and the others raise their hands to ask if she was a good witch or a bad witch.

Ian disappeared again, then walked up through American History, touching each book on the top right-hand row. "He practically lives here, doesn't he?" Loraine whispered. "That little homosexual boy."

"He's ten years old!" I said. "I doubt he's anything-sexual."

"Well I'm sorry, Lucy, I have nothing against him, but that child is a gay." She said it with the same tone of pleasure at her own imagined magnanimity that my father used every time he referred to "Ophelia, my black secretary."

Over in fiction now, Ian stood on tiptoes to pull a large green book from a high shelf. A mystery: the blue sticker-man with his magnifying glass peered from the spine. Ian sat on the floor and started in on the first page as if it indeed contained all the mysteries of the world, as if everything in the universe could be solved by page 132. His glasses caught the fluorescent light, two yellow discs over the pages. He didn't move until the other children began gathering and Loraine bent down beside him and said, "Everyone's waiting for you." We weren't--Tony didn't even have his coat off yet--but Ian scooted on his rear all the way across the floor to join us, without ever looking up from the book. We had five listeners that day, all regulars.

"All right," I said, hoping Loraine would make her exit now, "where did we leave off?"

"Miss Trunchbull yelled because they didn't know their math," said Melissa.

"And she yelled at Miss Honey."

"And they were learning their threes."

Ian sighed loudly and held up his hand.


"That was all two weeks ago. BUT, when last we left our heroine, she was learning of Miss Trunchbull's history as a hammer thrower, and also we were learning of the many torture devices she kept in her office."

"Thank you, Ian." He grinned at me. Loraine rolled her eyes--whether at me or Ian, I wasn't sure--and tottered back to the stairs. I almost always had to cut Ian off, but he didn't mind. Short of burning down the library there was nothing I could do that would push him away. I was keeping Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing behind the desk to sneak to him whenever he came without his babysitter. Almost every afternoon for the past week he had run downstairs and stuck his head over my desk, panting.

Back then, before that long winter, Ian reminded me most of a helium balloon. Not just his voice, but the way he'd look straight up when he talked and bounce around on his toes as if he were struggling not to take off.

(Did he have a predecessor? asks Humbert.

No. No, he didn't. I'd never met anyone like him in my life.)

Whenever he couldn't find a book he liked, he'd come lean on the desk. "What should I read?"

"How to Stop Whining," I'd say, or "An Introduction to the Computer Catalogue," but he knew I was kidding. He knew it was my favorite question in the world. Then I'd pick something for him--D'Aulaire's Greek Myths one time, The Wheel on the School another. He usually liked what I picked, and the D'Aulaire's launched him on a mythology spree that lasted a good two months.

Because Loraine warned me early on about Ian's mother, I made sure he read books with innocuous titles and pleasant covers. Nothing scary-looking, no Egypt Game. When he was eight, he came with a babysitter and borrowed Theater Shoes. He returned it the next day and told me he was only allowed to read "boy books."

Fortunately, his mother didn't seem to have a great knowledge of children's literature. So My Side of the Mountain crept under the radar, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Both books about running away, I realized later, though I swear at the time it never crossed my mind.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2011-03-15:
This entertaining first novel reads like a liberal librarian's illicit fantasy-save a child from an overbearing, ultrareligious mother by surreptitiously introducing him to new ideas through great literature. Lucy Hull is a young, accidental children's librarian with few friends. Her one interest is ten-year-old voracious reader Ian, who she predicts will come out one day. Lucy willfully ignores the list of forbidden subjects that Ian's mother presents to her, checking out books for him on her own library card. When Lucy discovers Ian camped out at the library, backpack and getaway plan at the ready, it doesn't take much convincing for her to drive off with him, launching a wacky, aimless cross-country road trip. Lucy is a self-centered, exasperating heroine, but her relationship with Ian is charming and original. VERDICT Librarians may beef that Lucy's reading suggestions and Makkai's descriptions of library practice are not current, but the general public probably won't notice. Overall, a stylish and clever tale for bibliophiles who enjoy authors like Jasper Fforde and Connie Willis. [See Prepub Alert, 12/13/10.]-Christine Perkins, Bellingham P.L., WA (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2011-04-04:
Makkai shows promise in her overworked debut, an occasionally funny crime farce about a hapless librarian-cum-accidental kidnapper. Lucy Hull is a 26-year-old whose rebellion against her wealthy Russian mafia parents has taken the form of her accepting a children's librarian job in smalltown Missouri. After an unnecessarily long-winded first act, the novel picks up when Lucy discovers her favorite library regular, 10-year-old Ian Drake, hiding out in the stacks one morning after having run away from his evangelical Christian parents, who censor his book choices and are pre-emptively sending him to SSAD (Same-Sex Attraction Disorder) rehab, and Lucy soon aids and abets his escape. The tale of their subsequent jaunt across several state lines dodging cops, a persistent suitor of Lucy's, and a suspicious black-haired pursuer is fast-paced, suspenseful, and thoroughly enjoyable-the real meat of the book. Unfortunately, the padding around the adventure too often feels like preaching to the choir (censorship is bad, libraries and independent booksellers are good) and the frequent references to children's books-including a "choose-your-own adventure" interlude-quickly go from cute to irritating. There's great potential, but it's buried in unfortunate fluff. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Review Quotes
"[Lucy's] relationship with Ian is charming and original...A stylish and clever tale for bibliophiles who enjoy authors like Jasper Fforde and Connie Willis." - Library Journal "Makkai takes several risks in her sharp, often witty text, replete with echoes of children's classics from Goodnight Moon to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz , as well as more ominous references to Lolita . . . the moving final chapters affirm the power of books to change people's lives even as they acknowledge the unbreakable bonds of home and family. Smart, literate and refreshingly unsentimental." - Kirkus Reviews " The Borrower proves [Makkai] is a great writer...This is a wonderfully entertaining story packed with moral conundrums and beautiful writing." -Patrick Neale, co-owner, Jaff & Neale Bookshop & Caf , in The Bookseller
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, March 2011
Publishers Weekly, April 2011
Booklist, May 2011
Boston Globe, June 2011
Wall Street Journal, June 2011
Kirkus Reviews, July 2011
School Library Journal, January 2012
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Main Description
In this delightful, funny, and moving first novel, a librarian and a young boy obsessed with reading take to the road. Lucy Hull, a young children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both a kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten- year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy's help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly antigay classes with celebrity Pastor Bob. Lucy stumbles into a moral dilemma when she finds Ian camped out in the library after hours with a knapsack of provisions and an escape plan. Desperate to save him from Pastor Bob and the Drakes, Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian. The odd pair embarks on a crazy road trip from Missouri to Vermont, with ferrets, an inconvenient boyfriend, and upsetting family history thrown in their path. But is it just Ian who is running away? Who is the man who seems to be on their tail? And should Lucy be trying to save a boy from his own parents?
Main Description
In this delightful, funny, and moving first novel, a librarian and a young boy obsessed with reading take to the road. The odd pair embarks on a crazy road trip from Missouri to Vermont, with ferrets, an inconvenient boyfriend, and an upsetting family history thrown in their path.

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