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The Borrower

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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?

324 pages, Hardcover

First published June 9, 2011

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About the author

Rebecca Makkai

22 books3,595 followers
Rebecca Makkai's latest novel, THE GREAT BELIEVERS, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; it was the winner of the ALA Carnegie Medal, the Stonewall Book Award, and the LA Times Book Prize; and it was one of the New York Times' Ten Best Books of 2018. Her other books are the novels THE BORROWER and THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE, and the collection MUSIC FOR WARTIME -- four stories from which appeared in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. A new novel, NINETY-FIVE, will be released by Viking in 2022 or early 2023.

Rebecca is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University. She is Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago. Visit her at RebeccaMakkai.com or on twitter@rebeccamakkai.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,353 reviews
5 reviews2 followers
July 24, 2011
Well I'll be honest: I joined Goodreads just so I could review this book. It is one of those ones that makes you want to grab strangers on the street and force them to read it while you watch their face to see their reaction. But more about that in a minute...

I do read reviews on Goodreads from time to time, usually after I finish a book (oddly), and two things were bothering me about the responses to this book, and I felt compelled to respond to them. It seems I had to join to do that! First, it's odd to see so much moral judgment of a character in a book where the very first line is "I might be the villain of this story." It's almost as if other readers have conflated the author with the narrator, and figure that if in the end the narrator is culpable then it must have failed as a book. How very strange a response. I'd love to see these same readers' responses to Crime and Punishment! Let's give the author a little credit here: if she'd wanted to make this a clear moral case, it would have been so easy (maybe too easy) to do that. Instead she chose to make her narrator just as flawed as Ian's parents, and that's what makes it a great story. (I've been troubled in recent years by the obsession with "likability", people demanding that their characters make good choices or become better people in the book, but I digress.)

Secondly, as a retired school librarian, I need to say this to the librarians on here saying they refuse to like the book because Lucy doesn't have an MLIS: first of all, there ABSOLUTELY ARE libraries, way out in the cornfields, where someone could end up in even an administrative position with nothing more than a BA. I even know of two different public libraries where the "head librarian" (argue if you will about whether that should be her title) has no MLS. To me, this was sufficiently explained in the book by the boss being drunk and not caring, and being in crisis over losing her children's librarian to cancer when Lucy's resume showed up in her mailbox, and in a very small, isolated town. it seemed fully in character. This is not a real person who took a job away from a real qualified librarian, for pete's sake. But REGARDLESS of all that: who in the hell cares? My husband was a surgeon for forty years, and if he dismissed out of hand every TV show, movie and book that didn't play true to life on medical details, he'd never have enjoyed anything. This is a book that every politician in Washington should be forced to read before they even dream of cutting library funding. This is a book that is a love letter to libraries, and librarians who quibble over the little details are missing the point.

And back to my main point: this is an amazing book. It's very of-the-moment, with Michelle Bachmann's "reparative therapy" business in the headlines, and it's a book that every PFLAG member, every school guidance counselor, every gay adolescent should read. And everyone else, too.
Profile Image for Swrp.
561 reviews109 followers
February 7, 2021
Cool, dramatic, spontaneous and hilarious!

Come, hop on and just enjoy the drive... don`t waste time judging or finding the critic within yourself.

“Isn't it what all librarians strive toward, at least in the movies and cliches? Silence, invisibility, nothing but a rambling cloud of old book dust.”

This book is about the crazy road trip story of Lucy Hull, a children's librarian from Hannibal, Missouri and 10-year-old Ian Drake.

I started this book thinking it was about books, libraries and librarians. But after the initial period where some books are discussed, this storyline turns into an adventure.

A fun read!
Profile Image for Laura.
3,694 reviews95 followers
August 22, 2012
Oh, where to start? I just couldn't buy into the premise no matter how much I really tried. When you have a book that essentially a two-hander, you need to like both characters - Lucy just irritated me too much for that to happen. Which is too bad because the book parodies and games are charming.

Lucy is the head children's librarian at a small public library in Missouri, reporting to an alcoholic director, living over a small theatre, and no real direction in life. One of the children that comes into her space is Ian, a voracious reader. Unfortunately, Ian's family is some flavor of evangelical and his mother comes down to the children's area demanding that he not be allowed to borrow books that didn't have "the breath of God" in them (the paranormal, for example, including classics like Tuck Everlasting). Ian rebels by hiding the books he's borrowing, and Lucy abets by checking them out under her own name.

Lucy and her friends Sophie and Rocky suspect that Ian is gay, and when Lucy learns that Ian is being sent to a sexual rehabilitation camp, she's eager to do something to help him escape what she now feels is a horrible, abusive home. One day her chance arrives: Ian's run away, much like Claudia and Jamie do, only he's hidden in the library instead of the Met. For reasons that elude Lucy (and the reader) she decides to "take him home", a trip that ends up in Vermont, near the Candaian border. She also lies about her whereabouts, who Ian is, and where she's going/what she's doing.

There's much here to delight ("If You Give a Librarian a Closet", for example), but Lucy's motivations bothered me, as did her demeanor. I'm not going to get into the argument over her even being a librarian (she doesn't have her MLS, nor is she in library school) or her feeling that the First Amendment trumps all (even the Second Amendment). It was more her certitude that she was saving Ian - who clearly wanted an adventure but seemed to not see that he needed "saving", per se - and her clumsy handling of how to save him, in addition to her eagerness to believe in the power of story to the extent that (I think) she buys into the "kidnapping" because it's just another story. I'm sure I'll be alone in this, which is fine.

ARC provided by publisher.
Profile Image for Jennifer Welsh.
219 reviews160 followers
December 18, 2022
I often see stories in two arcs: what I call the external arc, which is the overt action driving the story forward, and the arc underneath, which is the emotional shift for the character/s, and what the story is really about. This is the lens that gave me pause in this story: I enjoyed the internal arc, but far juicier was the external one, and I felt Makkai’s use of it was dismissive.

This was a strange mix for me of delightful and engaging, and troubling in the above-mentioned way. I found this read accessible and compelling, and I chuckled out loud a lot. It’s filled with great characters, and I was never bored. But, the main character, Lucy, is obsessed with wanting to save a 10-year-old, assumed-to-be-gay boy from his fanatically religious upbringing and suspected abuse. This is the vehicle for her to come to terms with her own upbringing, the difference between lies and imagination, what it means to belong, and what it means to assume you know best for others. I found the inner journey worthwhile, but not at the expense of the outer one. And when the journey launches into a road trip, I was disturbed by the protagonist’s lack of concern for those she left behind. In addition, although I can usually suspend disbelief, here not so much. The lack of consequences for the protagonist irked me.

That said, Lucy is a librarian, and Ian, the boy, an avid reader. There are lots of fun references to favorite books that would delight any reader.

This was my first of Makkai, a writer I’ve been meaning to read. I’m hoping The Great Believers is a stronger work still containing the talent I enjoyed here.


Profile Image for Jill.
1,155 reviews1,612 followers
July 8, 2011
Let me say it straight out: this book isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

Those who cherry-pick the Bible – who ignore the parts that say “you can’t ever eat pork or shellfish, and women should cover their heads, and you can’t plant two crops in the same field”, yet laser in on two little verses that may or may not imply that God doesn’t like gays – will likely be offended.

Certainly, the existence of those who believe not in absolute rights but in their particular absolute right offends the protagonist, Lucy Hull, a young children’s librarian. Her heart goes out to her favorite patron, a young 10-year-old boy named Ian Drake who is likely gay. His uptight mother, rather than accepting him as he is, promotes a strong anti-gay, evangelist agenda, wanting him only to read books with “the breath of God”. When Lucy finds him camped out in the library after hours, she makes a split-second decision: she spirits him away from his parents and finds herself on the lam on an improvised road trip to Chicago and points east.

It is here that I felt the book goes temporarily off course. If this were not a parable but a story about flesh-and-blood people, surely Lucy would understand the ramifications of leaving abducting a young child. And certainly she would quake at the consequences of such an action and seriously consider what she was doing. Her motivation – or should I say, lack thereof -- for such a bold move nearly derailed my reading experience.

Fortunately, I stuck with it and discovered the book was less about Ian’s own journey toward his coming-of-age intellectual awakening than Lucy’s. Lucy – the daughter of a Russian Mafia father – has lived with illusions her whole life. As she finds out, everything is not so black-and-white in one’s personal history.

And along the way, she learns that there is also no happy ending in many cases. Lucy runs head on into her own sense of hubris when she reflects on her key goal in fleeing with Ian: “There was a picture from somewhere of a place I would take him, maybe a place from a book: a white-walled, sunny house where people took care of children…” Yet as she discovers, “I had failed to understand that the reason you can’t change who you are is that you can’t change where you’re from.”

There are some delightful plot twists and some implausible ones. The characters can be engaging…at times, infuriating…and in at least one case, superfluous. The theme, though, remains constant: we cannot lazily rely on accepted platitudes or religious homilies. Instead, we need to be mindful of our journey of self-discovery… and sometimes, that journey takes us back to a place called home. I applaud the author for taking on such an emotionally charged topic. (3.75)

Profile Image for Nicholas.
Author 6 books73 followers
June 30, 2012
Here's the first thing that people should understand about The Borrower: it's not realistic. Here's the second: that doesn't matter. Allow yourself to go with it for a moment before condemning Lucy for driving away from Hannibal, Missouri with Ian Drake, or doubting that she would do it in the first place. I just don't feel that author Rebecca Makkai was expecting us to believe that any 26 year-old librarian would go on a week-long secret road trip with a 10 year-old child, even one whose parents were trying to de-gay him through a weird Christian boys camp sponsored by ex-gay Pastor Bob. If this is about "real life," then the kidnaping strains credulity, as do a number of elements of the plot.

I'm not saying that the novel is "fantasy" or "science fiction," for it is set in our world, but it is part of a genre of novels whose characters aren't quite believable as truly walking among us. And yet that's just not a problem. If you can get over whether or not the book is "realistic" or "possible," then you get to experience the wonders of Lucy and Ian together, two confirmed bibliophiles who are saved by books and revel in what fiction can do for them. And that, it seems to me, is the real message of this really touching novel: books are transformative. Especially for those of us who don't fit in, aren't popular, and had a harder time of it as kids (and beyond), fiction is powerful, wonderful stuff. And it need not be "realistic" in order to be good.
Profile Image for Robin.
1,496 reviews40 followers
October 16, 2013
Reading The Borrower is like having a long sit-down with an old friend, full of asides and references you're supposed to know. It's great!

I could pick this book apart, if I wanted to: Lucy is not a believable character: She's super-smart, but has no career plans, gorgeous, but doesn't date or have friends, "falls into" a job that requires an advanced degree she doesn't have, and allows herself to be led into a criminal act by a ten year old boy.


It is a fantastically enjoyable read. Makkai gives a great turn of phrase, and the book is fun! At the same time, it's about the fictions we allow ourselves to believe about ourselves and just about everyone else we meet, and how that keeps us apart.

Passages I want to remember:

"Excepting the books, I never liked to amass more possessions than could be moved in a cartop U-Haul. You never know when the Cossacks are going to invade." (p.31)

"In a library in Missouri that was 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-des-tine." (p. 35)

"Too Much Tequila, by Margaret Wise Brown. The Very Obvious Nose Job, by Eric Carle." (p. 59)

"I'd watched The Music Man enough times as a child to be wary of smiling musicians. The way they waltz into your library singing, swinging that con man briefcase and telling you to be spontaneous. They tell you this town could be saved with a little luck and a good marching band." (p.68)

I do crazy miss being a children's librarian.
Profile Image for Julie Ekkers.
257 reviews21 followers
July 24, 2011
What a delightful book! It concerns a sort of listless librarian and her friendship--and sudden adventure--with a 10-year-old boy, who might be gay, to the horror of his very Christian parents. There are references to all kinds of children's books which all readers who were bookworms as children will have fun recognizing and remembering. What I loved most about this book is the manner in which it pays homage to those formative reading experiences, and acknowledges that for many of us, books contain truths around which we can shape and live our lives, as much as a religion, or laws. As someone who grew up reading, seeking escape, solace, knowledge, and--unwittingly--a framework to make sense of her world, in books, I practically cheered reading the concluding pages of The Borrower. How fun it was to feel again that sense of, "Yes! Me, too! I have felt that way exactly!" I find it doesn't happen as often as an adult reader, but it's just as thrilling when it does.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,422 reviews538 followers
October 23, 2019
I was drawn to this book by its bookish theme and by the author whose "Great Believers" I loved. But a road trip that is an "accidental abduction" of a 10 year old boy by a librarian was not amusing to me but anxiety producing. I could not relax into the flippant tone of this book at all.
637 reviews19 followers
January 15, 2012
This author can NOT be a parent, first of all. To create this kind of storyline...
However her character (can't recall her name now)obtained this 10 year old boy purposefully or not - just the fact that she didn't call his parents from moment ONE makes me feel like jail is a proper sentence for her. As a mom, I would have had an AGONIZING week wondering what kind of perv or loon had my kid; along with all kinds of horrendous images. Unforgivable.
Then...it was suggested in the beginning that the parents were in some way abusive? There was a very negative image presented of the parents. As the story went along, I realized that - unless I missed something big - the issues given regarding the mother were that 1.She wanted to ensure her 10 year old was reading appropriate books (christian oriented to complement the family values) & 2.She had enrolled her son in a religious class dealing with self actualization, thinking it may be possible that the boy was gay & if so, the class should prevent it. This right here just gets me on SOOO many levels - First, HE'S TEN YEARS OLD! How could you possibly make those kind of assumptions about a child? He was a smart kid, kinda geeky maybe, didn't relate well to kids his age...that kind of thing. So what? Where do you get gay from that?? AND THEN...who does this librarian think she is to decide that if he WERE gay - she knows the correct and BETTER way to handle it than the parents. She questions him about the 'self-actualization' class he took at the church & there was not one thing in the experiences he related to make me think that it was in ANY way inappropriate. He was absolutely clueless to the message it was that she was trying to convey when she told him the class & the church were wrong in their way of thinking & he should just ignore that & be 'who he is' because these are things you cannot change. And her expertise dealing with such issues is - WHAT?? - to make it in ANY way appropriate for her to have been involved in ANY way at all, much less kidnapping the kid to tell him that being gay is okay.
My point is that parents have the right to parent according to their values. There are so many children with parents who don't care if their kids ate for the day, much less pay attention to what books they're checking out at the library. This was certainly not a case of abuse or anything remotely similar to that. This was a case of an author who has some kind of beef with Christianity & set out to create an appearance of Christian parents as overprotecting bullies who don't agree with her line of liberal thinking. Look, I'm not a religious fanatic, I rarely even go to church; but this just has me STEAMING. As a former social worker, I've seen REAL abuse/neglect cases. Overbearing parents may not be perfect but they're CERTAINLY preferable to those who take no (or negative) notice of their kids!
I really didn't realize this book affected me to this degree until I started ranting on this review. I felt better that in the end the main character admitted her inability to become a parent herself and sort of acknowledged the experience she helped put those poor parents through for over a week.
To me, this was just a silly attempt to make the author's liberal views known - hoping to hijack my feelings and achieve a 'feel sorry for the poor forced Christian kid' as a tactic to see it her way. Uh-uh. Quite obviously worked the opposite on me!
Putting two sentences together & having the ability to make it sound pretty okay - does NOT an author make. WHO published this anyway?
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Bonnie G..
1,259 reviews179 followers
February 26, 2019
I loved that this truly served as a tribute to my favorite children's books, many of which involved children hitting the road, escaping parents who were disconnected, or cruel, or who simply didn't understand them. The "kids on their own" trope, whether in the Mixed up Files or Harry Potter or the many other books that employed it, is magical. Less magical is the kid with an adult accomplice spiriting him around in order to try to outrun her own discontent and alleviate her ridiculous boredom. (Do something you lazy sow! You have money, looks, autonomy and an education, your boredom is entirely your own fault.) Less magical is the journey that involves not security guards or demons, but rather Russian gangsters and creepy pseudo-relatives. Also less charming is Ian, the child at the center of the story, who makes Lucy "kidnap" him. Ian is like no child ever. As I read I wondered in Makkai had ever met an actual child. Also I wondered whether she has met an actual fundamentalist Christian. I am going to guess the answer to both questions is no.

Still, the aforementioned references to wonderful children's books, and the great characters around Lucy (her father and uncle particularly) made most of this a fun little fantasy read. 3.5 rounding up to 4 because I love books that are about loving books.
Profile Image for Jojo.
74 reviews2 followers
July 4, 2011
Oh how I wanted to love this book! It has so many things that I adore: libraries, quirkiness, a book reference on almost every page, a journey, a possibly-gay 10 year-old boy, various unrequited loves...

The book turned out to be grounded more in farce than in reality, which would have been ok except that the protagonist was so dull you couldn't really root for her, and in a farce, you need to have some attachment to the main character in order to swallow all the unrealistic situations and coincidences.

Also (this is not a spoiler but the main idea of the book) she kidnaps a child!! She kidnaps a child!!! She. Kidnaps. A. Child. I don't care how bad she thinks his home life is, she should not have kidnapped the child.

This book does a disservice to real librarians who work hard to get their MLS degrees, since Lucy Hull just plods her way into a job that actually requires some expertise.

I don't even want to get into the gay-kid aspect of the novel. It hits too close to home for me. Ian may or may not be gay (the only reason he may be is because some adults think he is; that wasn't reason enough for me to buy into it. What, he's a voracious reader, has a soft voice and likes to sing? Most of the boys I know who fit that description are straight.) The fundamentalist Christian aspect was, I think, handled more realistically.

And as long as I'm ripping this book a new one, can I just say---and I don't think this is petty---the Hush Puppy dog is a Bassett hound, not a beagle. She keeps calling it a beagle!! I kept waiting for someone to correct her---Glenn or Ian---but no one did, and I can only assume that this point slipped past a bunch of people as the book was being readied for publication. What the hell.

I hated the ending, which really made me lose respect for the book. I might have been able to deal with all of the other stuff because I did love the literary references, the parodies, and the basic idea of the story. But the string of coincidences at the end were just silly. I wanted some triumph for Ian; I put so much time into making sure he was ok.

Two and a half stars. I just can't round it up to three because I felt the pacing was off: started out ok and then just dragged. They spent so much time at their final destination, time that didn't need to be spent, that I almost started to hate what is actually one of my very favorite states.
Profile Image for Elaine.
312 reviews58 followers
July 24, 2011
This started out wonderfully. I was immediately drawn the liberal librarian and the winsome boy whom she sneaks books to, books his parents obect to, but which are children's classics. The librarian's rationale is that the boy wants to read those books and she is not a censor. The ethical and moral issues here are never worked out. Do parents have the right to judge what books are suitable for their children? Do parents have the right to decide what religious beliefs their children should hold? Apparently not, since the parents are presented as unlikable tyrants. The librarian who goes against their wishes is portrayed sympathetically.

Actually, ethical, moral, and, ultimately, legal issues abound in this book, which is what kept me reading. At the end, Makkai seems to suggest that people who meddle, but who are on the "right" side of the fence, may be as guilty of playing with someone's life as those who are on the "wrong" side. Most readers will detest Ian's bigoted mother and Parson Bob, the anti-gay crusader, but Lucy's intervention doesn't square with Ian's beliefs, and what she does to "save" him is reprehensible in my opinion. What was she saving him from? To what lengths will she go to save him? The plot finally fizzles out. Nothing is resolved. Nothing is changed, as far as I could see. Thhe very real ethical issues raised are not resolved.

The second half of this novel is an on-the-lam road trip. This should have been exciting, especially considering what went before. Makkai has drawn several memorable and interesting characters and portrays their activities with wit and vivid vignettes.

So, I found myself slogging through the road trip, thinking it would get better. It didn't. It wasn't a bit believable. We learn nothing new about our heroine or about Ian. Journeys are usually written into novels to show character development. This one showed nothing except, perhaps, that the FBI and the police are mighty casual about an ostensibly kidnapped child.

Makkai has talent. That shows in the first half of the novel, but the road trip is written in a very pedestrian manner, and the ending is unconvincing, at least to me.
3 reviews1 follower
April 6, 2011
This book will have its detractors, and I imagine that most of them will have missed the sort of tongue-in-cheek, this-didn't-really-happen aspect of the book. (Once the narrator tells you that you're supposed to call the town Hannibal, Missouri but that it's not really Hannibal, Missouri, and then confesses twenty pages in that she's already lied to you, I think all protestations of a story being unrealistic are null and void.) Lucy is an unreliable narrator -- my favorite kind -- and she takes you along on a very uncomfortable ride.

Lucy sort of kidnaps a child, or is kidnapped by him, depending on how you look at it. Makkai could have made this a much more clear-cut case, and we'd have been more naturally sympathetic to the narrator, but I think it's to her credit that she didn't.

This book is weirdly post-modern, and not just in its borrowing of other texts, but in the way it yanks you around and makes you question what's even going on to begin with.

Overall, one of the best debuts I've read in a really long time. And -- I never say this, but I mean it in the best possilbe way, forgive me literary people -- it would make a hell of a movie.
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
819 reviews752 followers
June 29, 2011
Debut novelist and elementary schoolteacher Rebecca Makkai combines a wily, madcap road trip with socially poignant conundrums and multiple themes in this coming-of-age story about a twenty-six-year-old children's librarian, Lucy Hull, and a ten-year-old precocious book lover, Ian Drake, in fictional Hanibal, Missouri. (Guess who is coming-of-age? Answer: not so evident.)

Lucy isn't entirely sure that she's a reliable narrator--part of our reading pleasure is to figure that out. She tells us in the enigmatic prologue "I'm not the hero of this story." Is she the villain? And, if she is not the hero, who is? The answers turn out to be thoughtfully complex and yet exquisitely simple for those of us--and only for those of us--whose love of reading is almost religious (upside down pun there).

Lucy has been sneaking laudable books to Ian, whose evangelical, anorexic mother, Janet, will only allow him to read books "with the breath of God in them." No books with content matter related to magic, witchcraft, wizardry, the occult, weaponry, adult content matter, evolution, or Halloween. No authors/books that question authority and explore complicated issues, or that have morally ambiguous themes. Oh, or contain a "sensitive" male character.

Janet has enrolled her son in the Glad Heart Ministries youth group with Pastor Bob, in order to de-gayify her son for his proto-gay behaviors. Pastor Bob is a "former" homosexual married to a "cured" once-upon-a-time lesbian, who believes that "sexuality is a choice, not an identity." His goal is to "speak to our children before the secular media has reached them with its political agenda." It makes your hair stand up and splits your ends.

One morning, when Lucy opens the library, she discovers that Ian has been camped out there all night. This sets the stage for the fugitive scene--adult and child on the lam, playing spontaneous road trip games and mimicking passages of children's books. (OK, the reader needs to suspend a little judgment here on how Ian maneuvers this, but this is fiction, so waive a little realism for a little magic, capisce?).

Lucy, as it turns out, has some, ahem... issues. A Chicago-raised Mount Holyoke graduate with a Russian émigré father and Jewish-American mother, she has a predilection for flight and self-flagellation. Her dad was a revolutionary, and his shady business dealings and questionable money sources have been a cause of discomfort all of Lucy's life. It seems she also has a knack for prevaricating. And indolence. Her adult decisions have, up to this time, been aimed at not taking action in her life, other than putting distance between her and her parents. She's "a would-be revolutionary stuck at a desk."

As Lucy and Ian cross state line after state line, she has moments of doubt and dread about her hapless journey with a juvenile. Although she tries to remind herself that Ian maneuvered this odyssey, she acknowledges her complicity. Lucy wants to save Ian from the clutches of religiosity. She impugns Janet Drake for wanting to censor a highly intelligent boy's mettle. But is she trying to censor the censor? She has doubts. But the voice of her insurrectionist father vexes her.

There are flaws, admittedly. Yet, they are easy to ignore when trumped by the nimble narrative and crack characterizations. Librarians beware--Lucy doesn't have her Masters of Library Science. And, as mentioned above, the inadvertent "kidnapping" scene raises a few eyebrows of believability.

But this beguiling story captivates, nonetheless. Ian and Lucy have a tart, biting relationship rather than a sentimental, precious one. Additionally, Makkai deftly weaves in children's literary lore, including THE WIZARD OF OZ, MADELINE, CHARLOTTE'S WEB, and many others, bolstering the narrative. Moreover, Lucy's subversive deeds in the name of social liberty are ripe and riveting. Makkai pushes the envelope, and the reader may wonder if the story will wax pedantic, but the author doesn't disappoint with easy answers; she doesn't manipulate Lucy's rant into her personal crusade.

THE BORROWER appeals, inevitably, to the ardent reader whose love of books starts with the mind but voyages to the soul. It is a journey of self-discovery and sanctuary, finding home wherever you are, and having the courage to face your future.

Profile Image for Kathrina.
508 reviews127 followers
July 12, 2011
I finished this book almost two weeks ago, but I've struggled in how to write this review. This book was a personal treasure to me, and writing my thoughts on it feel almost too intimate, too vulnerable, to bare to the world. And that's strange to me, because this is not high literature, no one will be studying this in a classroom, and it likely will never be a bestseller, but it spoke to me, or maybe echoed to me, all the things I try to say about what drives me and what I want to do with my life. We are all on this planet for a reason, or it helps to think we are, and my reason is to be the kidnapping librarian.
The narrator, Lucy, is scatterbrained and self-doubting, uncertain of the values she's inherited and infuriated by the values she's confronted with that aim to block and submerge any sense of self-awareness. But she's certain that a reading life opens doors we didn't even know were blocking the view, and if she can pass on anything at all, it is that knowledge, that there are worlds and beliefs and perceptions on the other side of the door. This urgent belief is framed inside a charming plot -- charming not in action, but in how Lucy chews through her thoughts and shares or doesn't share with her 11-year-old charge, Ian. By the end of this narrative we understand that this is only the beginning of the journey for Ian, and a difficult one it will be, but Lucy provides in the best way she knows how, by suggesting the titles that can see him through each year of young adulthood -- the books that will help him to see himself. What an awesome gift, and what a tribute to the work of all the best librarians, booksellers and English teachers. Isn't this why we do it? As inglorious as a kidnapping, shelving, stickering, endlessly recommending, reading aloud...in the end it's nice to think we're busy mending souls.
Profile Image for Kristin.
296 reviews
June 11, 2012
But books, on the other hand: I do still believe that books can save you. ...and because I knew the people books had saved. They were college professors and actors and scientists and poets. They got to college and sat on dorm floors drinking coffee, amazed they'd finally found their soul mates. They always dressed a little out of season. Their names were enshrined on the pink cards in the pockets of all the forgotten hardbacks in every library basement in America. If the librarians were lazy enough or nostalgic enough or smart enough, those names would stay there forever. (pg. 320)
Profile Image for Wanda Pedersen.
1,831 reviews358 followers
May 30, 2018
I’m not sure yet why I didn’t love this book as much as I expected to. Perhaps it’s because I never have read Mary Norton’s The Borrowers , and therefore couldn’t appreciate the parallels that Makkai was making.

The main character, Lucy Hull, is a children’s librarian, who becomes overly concerned with the welfare of her favourite library patron, Ian Drake. Being in library work myself, I usually adore books involving libraries and librarians. This one also references many books of childhood, another characteristic that I generally appreciate.

Although I tend to prefer ambiguous or realistic endings, I had problems with the wrap-up of this novel. The whole plot line of a run-away boy with the librarian who aids and abets him just didn’t work for me as it has for other readers. Your mileage may vary, perhaps I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to enjoy it right now. At any rate, I had to really push myself to finish the book and was left less than satisfied when I turned the final page.

But I truly did love some passages in the book, such as Lucy’s description of The Wizard of Oz:
And second, everyone is so weird, but they’re all completely accepted. It’s like, okay, you have a pumpkin head, and that guy’s made of tin, and you’re a talking chicken, but what the hell, let’s do a road trip.

That is one of the great pleasures of literature, its ability to make the unusual seem absolutely normal.
Profile Image for Paula Lyle.
1,486 reviews12 followers
August 21, 2011
A librarian and a boy on the run. When I read the reviews on this book, they all seemed to imply a lighthearted caper, which confused me as it also seemed to be about a librarian who kidnaps a child. Now having finished it, I didn't find the book to be very light-hearted and it's not about a kidnapping. You can quibble about whether or not the story is realistic, but the deeper truth is one that anyone who works with children (I teach second grade) can identify with.

There are children that you wish that you could take home with you. There are children whose families do not seem to understand what a treasure they have. There are children who you wish had better lifes or just different lifes. There are children that you think that you should save.

But you can't.

So you try to give them the skills to save themselves. You try to get them to see what a great resource they have within themselves. You try to lead them to books as a way to not only escape, but also to see that there is so much beyond what they know or can see.

You hope that you helped, but you will probably never know.

I loved this book and I know that I'll think about it for a long time to come.
Profile Image for Chris.
635 reviews15 followers
May 21, 2019
A charming close relationship between a young librarian (Lucy) and a precocious young boy (Ian) that revolves around the library and books. Lucy treats the library and books as if they were her own. This young boy, Ian, loves books; is addicted to books and to the library and looks to Lucy for suggesting good books for him to read. Unfortunately his mother is not keen on him reading certain genres, so either the boy or the librarian, devise ways to smuggle out his books (in his pants, under his coat).

Before long, things start to get out of control; the mother sends the son to see some weird pastor who will hopefully, help “turn his gayness away.”

Ian “runs away” by secretly hiding and spending the night in the library, only for Lucy to discover him the following morning. They both, essentially take matters into their own hands from there, and an unexpected “road trip” ensues, which Lucy has thoughts of getting out of town and perhaps “saving” this kid and raising him as her own somewhere.

There are religious beliefs/aspects in this story, as well as Russian family history and mafia. It’s a story of relationships, and also of deceit and kidnapping and finding ones’ self. It’s about the atmosphere of libraries and what they have to offer in more ways than one, and the true love of good books.

This little boy, Ian, was a smart, feisty little guy. His communication and antics from the get go were heartwarming and funny. The librarian, Lucy, was in a life rut, settling for less than what she was actually capable of, a small town children’s librarian.

Before the reader even knows what’s happening, they are both taking off on a “road trip” together (more like a hijacking/kidnapping). Their dialogues and their “plan” is rather helter skelter and mostly thought out/planned by Ian himself! Which is hilarious the reasoning this kid comes with. This kid is smart! They are at times, short of money, have a strange guy in a similar car following them around, a former boyfriend shows up for part of the road trip, they eat candy bars and sleep in cut rate hotels to avoid the public eye or suspicion. They are on the run. Lucy knows this is all not a good idea and has heavy guilt but knows this could all end badly for her and Ian. She could well be put in jail for kidnapping. And what about Ian? She does not want him to suffer.

Alas, you really must read the book to work out all the details, from beginning to end, which is quite amusing and yet a bit sad.

A very unusual, and adorable read (because of Ian’s well done character) of which I’m rating it 3.5 stars. The friendship and bond between these two characters and books and libraries was something very special to read about and witness.
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,481 reviews29.4k followers
September 2, 2011
Boy, did I love this book.

Lucy Hull is a children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri. In general, she lacks drive—she keeps doing her job because she enjoys it but she doesn't really want to pursue anything else, she keeps personal relationships at arm's length, and she doesn't care that her life is fairly boring. But all that changes as she deals with one of the library's most voracious readers, 10-year-old Ian Drake. When Ian's evangelical mother tells Lucy she only wants Ian reading books that contain "the breath of God" in them, as well as those that focus on stereotypically masculine characters and don't include magic or fantasy, Lucy helps Ian check out the "forbidden" books in secret. And when Lucy finds out that Ian's parents are sending him to religious classes in order to cure him of any potential SSAD (same-sex attraction disorder) when he gets older, she doesn't know how to help him.

One morning she arrives at the library to find Ian camped out, with a knapsack of provisions (including his pool pass if he needs to show identification). Somehow he part-convinces, part-threatens Lucy to take him on a road trip, and Lucy sees this as an opportunity to free Ian of the restrictions being placed upon him by his mother. Yet the road trip, like much of Lucy's life, doesn't have much of a plan, and Ian starts trying to lead her all over the country. They head from Hannibal through Chicago, to Pittsburgh and Vermont, as Lucy tries to rationalize her actions and draw Ian into telling her he needs her help. And along the way, Lucy learns a little bit more about herself and her family, which she has always kept a distance from, and how what you think is the truth is never quite absolutely true.

While clearly implausible in many ways, this was a terrific story. It had the potential to be preachy but it skated around the controversial issues fairly well. And while I felt that Rebecca Makkai made Lucy's Russian family and friends seem a bit stereotypical, I felt that the rest of the characters in this book were unique, complex and fallible—you wanted to know their story and you grew to care about them even if you didn't like them 100 percent. I would have liked to have known what happened to Ian as he grew up, even though that might have killed some of the book's magic, but overall, I really, really enjoyed this. Any book about the love of books does right by me.
Profile Image for Caren.
493 reviews102 followers
August 6, 2011
I wanted to read this book because the blurb said it was about a children's librarian. Well, that wasn't exactly true. The protagonist is a twenty-something college grad who happens to work in the children's section of a small town library, but she has not actually had any professional training (no masters degree, in other words).I couldn't see that she had had any prior experience of any kind with children, so one wonders how she landed this job. (There must have been a dearth of applicants and the pay must have been very low.) She does seem to have been very familiar with children's books. In fact, I really enjoyed the little bits of doggerel written in the style of well-known children's classics which appear throughout the book. Somehow, I couldn't really sympathize with Lucy. In fact, she drove me crazy with her ill-thought-out jumping from one plan of action to another. Was the author trying to hint at her immaturity? She was also extremely strident in her viewpoints. I don't know---I somehow found her quite irritating. The young patron she befriends, Ian, was also somewhat irritating to me. Oh heck, the whole book was a disappointment. I'll leave it at that.
Profile Image for Book Concierge.
2,735 reviews328 followers
December 29, 2021
Audiobook performed by Emily Bauer

I remember seeing the author when she was on the book tour for this debut novel. I was intrigued by the premise: a young librarian working in the children’s section befriends a 10-year-old boy who seems to have some family issues, and then finds him “sleeping” in the library when he’s run away from home. I knew that the two of them take a bit of a road trip, so I wasn’t surprised by that.

However, I WAS surprised by all the other stuff Makkai threw in here: conspiracy theories, Russian mafia (?), a theatre troupe as roommates, and a possible love interest (?). I never anticipated that the librarian would be such a complete ditz. Lucy Hull doesn’t have the common sense God gave a goose.

I also never got much of a sense of the boy’s parents. Yes, I realize that what little we know is from Ian’s perspective and the little that Lucy has observed in her work as the children’s librarian, but it seemed that they completely dropped out of the story line as soon as the road trip began. Ian, precocious though he may be, was frequently a typical ten-year-old bratty kid, given to whining if things didn’t go his way. I hated the interludes where Makkai would give lists such as “How a ten-year-old boy brushes his teeth.”

I also had problems with the logistics of what Makkai reported. Lucy leaves town with $200 and she stubbornly tries to refuse any money from her parents. If the exact date is mentioned, I missed it, but they have cell phones and computers, although she’s still checking books out using printed cards and date stamps. In any case, $200 won’t go far, even staying at Motel 8, with two rooms each night, and fast food, and gasoline. And then, at the end,

I’m going to stop writing because if I continue, I’ll probably drop the rating down to zero.

Emily Bauer is the narrator of the audiobook. She isn’t credited on the jacket cover, nor on any on-line record I could find, but her name is given at the outset. She does a great job of voicing Ian, making him a believable 10-year-old. But the voice she uses for Lucy? Well, she makes HER sound like she’s younger than Ian!
Profile Image for Kassel.
151 reviews17 followers
May 8, 2012
Forget that that the book is decidedly liberal. Forget that it's anti-George Dubya Bush. Forget that it's pretty much anti-evangelical. A librarian should not be so obsessed with a 10-year-old boy and her infatuation with the boy starts the book out on the creepy foot.

Everyone has decided from the get-go that poor 10-year-old Ian Drake is bound to become some kind of homosexual including his parents. So Ian goes to anti-gay classes and Russian-American librarian Lucy Hull (Hulkinov) wants to SAVE Ian!

Problem is, Lucy's not a very interesting character. She tries to convince us she is, but she's really not. (I finished the book only because it was a book club selection.) Lucy's obsession with Ian, however, hits a high point when she and Ian hit the road from Hannibal, Missouri and drive across the country to Vermont with stops in Chicago and Pittsburgh. They somehow kidnap each other except what happens along the way isn't really all that interesting. Somewhat interesting characters like Glenn, Lucy's sort-of boyfriend, and Rocky Walters (readers are unsure of Lucy's romantic status with him) are dropped in, only to be disposed of thoughtlessly by the end of the book. To be honest, I wasn't sure what Glenn added to the story except for a twist during one scene.

Lucy makes it all the way to Vermont with Ian and how will she and Ian get back to Missouri? Well, she put him on a Greyhound bus with some reliable, former ex-KGB operative. Lucy, however, decides to hightail it back to Chicago where her parents live and loaf around for a while, leaving her job in Hannibal as a children's librarian. Lucy learns she can't change Ian, and I think the road trip was a symbolic journey that was supposed to change her, and it somewhat does, but as a reader, I don't care. I am not invested in Lucy. Her father is an interesting character, but Lucy herself is not as interesting.

I guess this is a long enough review. There were some good parts to the book (I'd give it 2.5 stars), but the ending was disappointing to me, especially since Lucy technically didn't have to own up to anything or face any consequences for her actions. (The beginning didn't capture me either.) It might have made for a more interesting book if she'd confronted Ian's parents, but that's just me.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Vonia.
611 reviews97 followers
October 7, 2017
Where to begin? I loved it! Makkai & I would, no doubt, have been kindred spirits in grade school, reading at recess, going to the library after school, hiding by the night light after hours... Every single time I believed The Borrower could not be more reflective of my childhood reads, another of my favorite titles was mentioned. On page 275, when William DuBois's The 21 Balloons was finally mentioned, I am almost embarrassed to admit how estatic I was. Almost. There are only two titles to which I hold Makkai accountable for not mentioning and/or referencing: Ella Enchanted & The Giver. Maybe Harold & The Purple Crayon, but that is, in her defense, a younger age bracket than what was being discussed within the context of the story.
Profile Image for Sherry.
125 reviews53 followers
November 14, 2015
I haven't written a review until now because I was completely awe struck by this novel. An unlikely pair - a young librarian and a ten year old boy - take a road trip that will change their lives. The story is an unusual mix of the serious as well as humorous ways our past shapes our present as well as a hopeful glimpse into the future. I adored this book.
Profile Image for Cody.
1 review
July 1, 2011
In general: I really enjoyed Rebecca Makkai's style of writing. She did not follow the main-stream, continuous, and often stuffy structure. Instead, she opted for a more stream of consciousness set-up that established a more direct connection with me. Breaking away from the narrative to inject humor and wit by adding lists and diagrams absolutely cracked me up. I very much look forward to reading her upcoming work as I honestly felt connected and engaged to her as an author.

Subject matter: It was refreshing to get the take on a gay issue from the perspective of a strong-willed straight female narrator. Gay literature tends to be extreme; either essentially erotica or snooty, uppity literature that prides itself on being so droll and witty. This novel casts no such aspersions; it's genuine in its heart. Speaking of which, it's difficult for me to engage in literature that I can't relate to in some way. I've noticed a lot of novels are about women who are losing their mind...not so into that.

What I took out of it: Mainly, I got out of it that sure, you can go off on this whirlwind adventure attempting to "save" a kid from pain and suffering, but at the end of the day, you can't change someone's home/ family. Running away from your problems isn't going to solve them. (Dorothy Gale much?) There will always be parents even if one cuts communication off from them. As the person in the situation, it's going to take time to grow and mature. Lucy was expecting an epiphany from Ian. A ten-year old needs to figure stuff out, not necessarily be told. As an outsider to these kinds of situations, despite being frustrating and even painful to watch, one just always has to provide help in any way they can, but rash, unplanned, undirected action really won't solve anything. It's just movement, not progress. It is however necessary sometimes to break out of the routine and reveal new truths.

At least that's what I got out of it.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Nigel.
804 reviews90 followers
July 26, 2014
I confess I wasn't sure how a story about a librarian who effectively shelters a runaway 10 year old and then goes on a road trip with him was going to work. However it grabbed me very early on and lasted well for me. The engaging story of the road trip taken by these two book lovers is lovely. It is s gentle story wandering around parts of the USA with Lucy (the librarian) questioning herself deeply about why she has effectively abducted Ian and although that concept of gentleness and deep questioning seem somewhat contradictory I found it easy to relate to.

The book works on more than one level though. In course of the journey Lucy meets up with her parents and learns more of her family history (I loved the story of her father and the chocolate factory) and this leads to a deeper level which is a good part of the book - the degree to which the "truth" is actually that and just how much that matters sometimes. Add in her relationships and her concerns for Ian life and I found this was one of those rare first novels that tends to live up to the hype. So often I find the ending lets down a book that starts off well- I actually found the ending of this book quite satisfying although I realise it is hard to please everyone!

This is one of those infrequent books which I will not forget for sometime to come and I look forward to any more from this author - a very good read indeed - 4.5/5.
Profile Image for Elliot.
27 reviews6 followers
March 30, 2022
Centring gay trauma around a heterosexual protagonist like this is homophobic. It doesn’t help that the book isn’t funny either.
Profile Image for Bill Muganda.
353 reviews225 followers
March 24, 2017
Oh my God this was really good... I didn't expect to like that much :0 Full Review Soon
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