Lucy Hull is twenty-six and unmarried, a children's librarian in a fictional Hannibal, Missouri. The only child of a Russian immigrant father and a Jewish American mother, Lucy grew up in Chicago, bookish, very slightly rebellious, the inheritor of genetic guilt on both sides of the family. Always a little ashamed of her father's dubious business dealings, she fled to Missouri after college as a way to distance herself from her parents and their probably tainted money.
Despite sometimes viewing herself as a bit of a cliche, Lucy likes her job and the mission it provides her. She runs the Chapter Book Hour reading group every Friday afternoon (they're reading Roald Dahl's deliciously subversive Matilda as the story begins), she oversees the summer reading program, she passes out candy on Halloween, with double candy and a bookmark to any kid dressed as a character from a book. She lives in an apartment above a theater amid towering stacks of books. Her conversation is peppered with book quotes and references, and she loves nothing more than recommending just the right book. Her best and favorite library client is a loudly precocious and somewhat flamboyant ten-year-old called Ian Drake, a voracious and sophisticated reader.
When Ian's mom approaches Lucy at her desk in the library one afternoon to complain gently about Lucy's having given him Tuck Everlasting (about a family who's found the gift of immortality and the choice a young girl must make), Lucy is perplexed. Then Ian's mom requests that Ian only be allowed to check out books with "the breath of God in them," ignores Lucy's response that although she herself must allow her patrons full access to all the books it would certainly be Mrs. Drake's right to choose Ian's books for him, and finally whips out a list of topics ("Witchcraft/Wizardry; Magic; Satanism/Occult Religions, etc.; Adult Content Matter; Weaponry; The Theory of Evolution; Halloween; Roald Dahl, Lois Lowry, Harry Potter, and similar authors") which she'd like Ian to avoid. What else can Lucy do but nod and say she understands (though never actually agreeing to these terms)?
Not long after this encounter, Lucy learns that Ian is attending weekly sessions with a man who calls himself Pastor Bob. Pastor Bob is "formerly" gay, now born again, married to a reformed lesbian, and on a mission to de-gay the rest of the world. So really, what can she do, several months later, when she arrives at work early one morning to discover that Ian has run away from home with a backpack full of power bars and a hobo bag on a stick? She finds herself, against her better judgment but seemingly without a choice, on the lam with Ian. Lucy's not exactly a kidnapper...but she really should know better. And yet, though compelled by forces she can't quite bring herself to comprehend, Lucy has never seen Ian more gleeful, and the thought of getting him out of Pastor Bob's clutches--though the two of them never, ever talk about it--keeps her driving.
I couldn't stop comparing Lucy and Ian's journey to that of Ava and the Bird Man in Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, released earlier this year. Both are unconventional and discomfiting pairings of unrelated adult and child companions on journeys seemingly directed by the child. But, where the reader's discomfort with Ava's journey never for a moment lets up, and it ends much as one fears it will, that of Lucy and Ian is one of wholesome, if weird, discovery (and sometimes joy). In The Borrower Rebecca Makkai manages to write from Lucy's guilt-ridden, self-flagellating perspective while maintaining a light--and frequently hilarious--tone. Even Lucy's frequent moments of doubt and dread are balanced out by the spot-on deftness of the narrative, complete with passages written in the mode of authors from Eric Carle to Margaret Wise Brown to Lewis Carroll and beyond. The Borrower is a book for readers, for lovers of personal freedom and the beauty of being oneself, whoever that self may be. If you get all the book references ("Where's Papa going with that ax? said Fern"), then so much the better, but you'll enjoy this wonderful novel either way.