The Borrower's Playful Structure Drives Home Serious Message
By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 27, 2011 6:00PM
Rebecca Makkai's first novel reads like a fairy tale, but she weaves in several heavy thought starters as her main characters partake on a whimsical and adventurous road trip. The Borrower follows a librarian named Lucy in her efforts to help a 10-year old patron, Ian, along his bumpier-than-usual adolescence for possibly being gay. Ian loves reading, so Lucy starts by recommending books with protagonists who are a little out there and unusual, hoping to inspire him to be comfortable embracing whatever makes him different from his peers. But when Ian shows up at the library early one morning and begs Lucy to help him run away, she realizes how unhappy and desperate he's become. She feels empowered to take more dramatic action to help his situation. So they get in her car and drive away. Lucy tries to figure out what to do, but as she drives across the Missouri state line with Ian humming in the backseat, she realizes she has become a kidnapper.
As Lucy and Ian keep driving, the complexities of both their insecurities and problems continue to unfold. Makkai pulls readers in different directions and bounces between Lucy's self-discovery and Ian's eccentricities. Though a fictional character, Ian has a very real and terrifying problem; as evidenced by countless news stories and the creation of the It Gets Better Project by gay rights activist Dan Savage, bullying and suicides of gay kids and teenagers is serious. But instead of attacking any anti-gay or on-the-fence readers for their opinions, Makkai presents them with a complex story with interesting and enjoyable characters. By the time readers realize they're rooting for Ian and Lucy, they forget to judge anyone for being gay or sympathizing with someone who is.
Their road trip is an adventure. Even though Lucy has committed a crime and Ian has a potentially very unhopeful future, the story's structure and language keep each "wrong" turn playful and uppity. Makkai deliberately modeled their trip after the Wizard of Oz, and there are references to Oz and the journey to Emerald City throughout. She weaves in countless references to children's literature as well, as in the case of this Madeline-inspired stanza:
In a library in Missouri covered with vines Lived thousands of books in a hundred straight lines A boy came in at half past nine Every Saturday, rain or shine His book selections were clan-de-stine.
Though it's great fun, and Lucy and Ian have great adventures such as spending a night with an eccentric friend of Lucy's family, begging for money when theirs runs out and stumbling across a church with a mystical finger relic, Lucy's still driving Ian further and further from concerned parents. Of course, those overbearing parents are trying to mold their son’s sexuality by sending him to a degayifying class. Yet no matter what Lucy’s intentions, Ian's not her kid. It's a sticky situation for sure, and Makkai puts readers in Lucy's place. As Lucy gets in deeper and deeper, the right decision becomes more and more unclear.
Escapism is written all over The Borrower. Most of the focus is on Ian, who wants to run away from home, the boldest of all escapism statements that a kid can make. His mom refuses to allow him to read his favorite books because they lack Christian messages, and she's doing all she can to ensure than he doesn't "end up" gay. Ian has a lot to escape from. But Lucy also has her own reasons to escape, and a lot of roundabout ways of doing so. When Ian is looking for an escape, Lucy is happy to play along. Sure, it's technically kidnapping, which is absolutely illegal. But by helping him escape from a family who does not lovingly embrace all that he is, she feels she's doing good.
The Borrowers could happily sit on the shelves of the LGBT section of a bookstore, but it probably won’t. It’s written for readers who like a good story, a good adventure, and a little bit of mystery. Makkai’s message about gay rights is a very important component of her novel, but it’s not the only component of it. That’s why this book will be placed in fiction, with all the other “straight” books. And that’s how it should be, because there’s nothing wrong with a gay rights movement book being sold besides others without a gay word on their pages. Maybe the content is a little bit different, but it’s still a book.
Rebecca Makkai will be at the Lake Forest Book Store, 680 N Western Ave. in Lake Forest, for an author luncheon on Wednesday, June 27. Register via their website or by calling 847-234-4420.