Thursday, August 25, 2011

"The Borrower" by Rebecca Makkai

In many ways The Borrower operates on an idealistic dream of liberal bookworms: liberating a precocious and talented young boy from the grips of his religiously stifling parents through fiction and understanding.  It's this basic plot that will bring readers in (as it did me), though, in the end, Makkai's novel shows that freedom--for anyone--is more elusive and difficult than we'd like to think.

The novel begins with Lucy, a bored children's librarian in a small town. Her favorite patron is Ian, a ten-year-old with an insatiable appetite for books whose parents severely restrict his reading, allowing him only to read books they think have "the breath of God in them." Lucy helps Ian secretly read other books, but when she learns that Ian's parents have enrolled him in a Christian program run by a man named Pastor Bob designed to "cure" young gay people, she becomes even more concerned. When Lucy discovers one morning that Ian has "run away" and is hiding in the library, she allows Ian to convince her to leave with him (she wonders throughout whether she kidnapped him or he kidnapped her), and they begin a cross-country road trip.

There are two routes this book could have taken: a lighthearted and slightly absurd adventure, or a self-reflective look at who we are and whether that can be changed.  The Borrower, I think, is set up so that it would work best as the first, though it leans more in the second direction. Ian, in fact, is not the primary focus of the book; instead, much more attention is on Lucy's attempts to determine who she is, particularly as it relates to her father and her Russian heritage. Through her travels with Ian, she endlessly debates why she acts the way she does. It might be realistic for someone in her (highly unprobable) situation, but it also gets a little boring. Some levity is inserted with various literary allusions (Lucy occasionally adopts the style of well-known books), but it doesn't lighten the overall tone. Ian is the only bright spot in the book, and his unflagging enthusiasm had me giggling out loud, though it made Lucy dull by comparison.

The theme of The Borrower seems to be that no one can run away from who they are, and that who one is is a conglomeration of many different aspects of identity. At first Lucy believes that, away from Ian's parents, she can tell him that it's okay to be gay and "save" him. But, she fails to see who Ian is at that moment; he thinks Pastor Bob's classes are boring, but he's not thinking about his sexual identity. And while Lucy only sees hypocrisy in Ian's religion, Ian doesn't drop his beliefs away from his parents--he still strongly believes in God and everything else he's been raised to believe. It's a valid message, though it means the book lacks some of the heroic heartwarming moments that might have made it more engaging.

A number of plot points in the book, including Lucy's boyfriend Glenn and friend Rocky are left completely unresolved. The ending, too, is largely unresolved, though hopeful, which seems appropriate.

The Borrowers is built on an interesting idea, but its execution fell flat for me. Though I didn't dislike the novel, it failed to live up to its best character, Ian.

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