The Borrower: A Novel
by Rebecca Makkai

Published: 2011-06-09
Kindle Edition : 337 pages
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"Rarely is a first novel as smart and engaging and learned and funny and moving as The Borrower." —Richard Russo, author of Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls

Lucy Hull, a children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite ...
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"Rarely is a first novel as smart and engaging and learned and funny and moving as The Borrower." —Richard Russo, author of Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls

Lucy Hull, a children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. Ian needs Lucy’s help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly antigay classes. Desperate to save him from the Drakes, Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian when she finds him camped out in the library after hours, and the odd pair embarks on a crazy road trip. But is it just Ian who is running away? And should Lucy be trying to save a boy from his own parents?

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Discussion Questions

In the eyes of the law, taking Ian away from Hannibal is a criminal act, but it's difficult to fault Lucy for her actions. Do you trust Lucy's version of events? Is she a reliable narrator?

Lucy claims that "Hannibal" is not the town's true name. Do you think that "Hull" is her true name or did she choose it because it fits "snug between Huck and Humbert" (p. 2)?

Under what circumstances is it acceptable to take a child away from its parents? Based on what you know about Janet Drake, is she an "unfit" parent?

Who is "the borrower" in the novel?

Sophie Bennett, a teacher at Ian's school, tells Lucy that Ian will "do fine no matter what. Shit will hit the fan when he announces he's gay, but he'll get through it" (p. 25). Is Ian as resilient as Sophie thinks?

Even though she was born in America, Lucy frequently meditates on her Russian heritage. Do you think Americans ever completely shrug off the shadow of their ancestors' homeland?

The "reformed" homosexual Pastor Bob is both a hilarious and tragic character. Is he driven purely by profit, or do you think he truly believes it's possible and right to change one's own sexual orientation?

What were the seminal books of your childhood? Are any of them mentioned in The Borrower?

In many ways, The Borrower is Lucy's coming-of-age story as much as it is about Ian. Is she—like Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—freed at the end of the novel, or—like Humbert in Lolita—diminished by her experiences?

Do you agree with Lucy when she writes: "You think you can't go home again? It's the only place you can ever go" (p. 301)

Does one have to first become a parent—or, in Lucy's case, a parent proxy—in order to come to terms with one's own parents?

Books have been written and accessible for only a fraction of humankind's time on earth. Can you imagine living in a world without literature? How might your life have turned out differently if there were no books to read?

From the publisher

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

From Kirkus Revies:

A children's librarian in Hannibal, Mo., finds herself on a long, strange trip in Makkai's ruminative first novel.

Lucy Hull feels sorry for Ian Drake, the most devoted attendee of her read-aloud on Friday afternoons. Ian's reading is severely circumscribed by his mother's fundamentalist strictures, which rule out everything from Roald Dahl to Harry Potter. Lucy is further appalled when she learns that Ian—whom everyone assumes is gay, though he's only 10—is forced to attend weekly classes with Pastor Bob, who specializes in rehabilitating "sexually confused brothers and sisters in Christ." So when Lucy finds Ian hiding in the library one morning with a knapsack, she decides to help him run away. They wind up on a meandering journey that passes through her parents' home in Chicago, where Lucy picks up some cash from her father, an affluent Russian immigrant with vaguely unsavory business ties. En route to Vermont, where Ian claims his grandmother lives, Lucy tries to figure out how she got herself into this mess and how she can avoid being arrested as a kidnapper. Makkai takes several risks in her sharp, often witty text, replete with echoes of children's classics fromGoodnight Moon toThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz,as well as more ominous references toLolita.Lucy and Ian don't bond in the warm and fuzzy way of Hollywood movies, and there's no big payoff where he recognizes and renounces his mother's bigoted ways. He remains a smart, difficult kid whose inner thoughts are opaque. This is Lucy's story, and we have known from the opening pages that her road trip will shake her loose from Hannibal; the interest comes from discovering how and why. The novel bogs down for a long time in the middle with an excess of plot, but 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.


Q. What inspired you to write The Borrower? Did you ever have a friend like Darren?

Of all the characters in the book, Darren might be the most real, although he's an amalgam of several different people I knew in high school and college. Some of their stories ended well, and some ended very badly. I wrote his sections a few years ago, but then in 2010, as I finished editing The Borrower, there was a spate of tragic reports about gay teenagers taking their own lives. It's my strong belief that the media focus wasn't the product of any new trend but rather our sudden national obsession with news stories featuring the words "bully" and "suicide." You start paying attention to those stories, and, lo and behold, they're largely about gay teenagers. I'm grateful, though, for that media blitz, however ephemeral, since some good came of it—notably the "It Gets Better" project, (www.itgetsbetter.org) which I dearly hope that Ian, in his fictional universe, has discovered.

That sad and familiar narrative wasn't quite the spark behind The Borrower, though. I became aware, about ten years ago, of the numerous groups that (like the fictional Glad Heart Ministries) attempt to "turn" gay or gay-identified kids, teens, and adults straight. Of all possible viewpoints on that issue, I was intrigued most by that of an outsider: someone who cared very much about the child at stake but had no legitimate recourse. I think Lucy's is a relatable narrative if only because that's how so many of us feel, hearing reports of children we don't even know who are growing up in hostile environments and finding ourselves utterly unable to help. What we don't have, of course, that Lucy does, is opportunity. What each of us would do if given the chance… I suppose that's a question for the book group after-party.

Q. Lucy and Ian's journey parallels those in both Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Was it difficult to find the right balance?

It was fun to play with those extremes: the delusional, monster kidnapper and his victim, versus the two misfit companions helping each other escape. Lucy isn't sure where she falls on that spectrum, but, being the librarian she is, she sees her whole life through a sort of narrative lens and wants to define herself on those terms.

Nabokov's influence actually helped me through a difficult pass in the writing of this story; I'd gotten Lucy and Ian on the road, but after they got past Chicago the story abruptly lost steam. I dug back into Lolita and saw what I'd forgotten, and what the old master had done so effortlessly: he had them followed. I embraced "Mr. Shades" as a nod to Lolita's Quilty plotline—but even if it hadn't fit my larger thematic motives, I'd still have stolen the idea, because it was such a good, basic one. I'm pretty sure I literally hit myself on the head when I saw it. As soon as Lucy and Ian got a follower, too, I had a triangle—and that's when plots (and life) get interesting.

Of course there's a whole heaping dose of The Wizard of Oz in there, too, and there's even some Ulysses, buried so deep that only the true-of-English-major-heart will find it.

Q. Who are some of your other literary influences?

I've learned about endings from Alice Munro, complexity from Tom Stoppard, regret from Ian McEwan, character from Richard Russo, strangeness and possibility from Italo Calvino, and rhythm (of both language and plot) from Salman Rushdie. And the children's author Lois Lowry first taught me (many, many years ago) how to tell a story.

Q. Why do you think the librarian's stereotypical forlorn spinster image still persists?

I have absolutely no idea, because most of the librarians I know are loud and rebellious individuals.

Q. Who do you envision as your novel's ideal reader? Are you concerned that its language and matter-of-fact treatment of sex and drinking will keep it from some of the young adult readers who might most benefit from it? What age would this book be appropriate for among young adults?

I never set out to write something for younger readers, although I do think the book would be appropriate for intelligent high school students. There is a need, always, for books that guide adolescents through the difficulties of growing up different, but I'm not a Young Adult author, and I very much hope those kids could find solace someplace better than in a novel with an extended Nabokov reference on the very first page.

I do, though, envision an audience of those same souls Lucy refers to in the penultimate chapter—the ones who used to read under the covers with the flashlight, and the ones who don't know where they'd be without the stories that got them through childhood.

I think many of us who've lived our lives as readers did walk into our public libraries one day, maybe around the age of ten, and get abducted in the most wonderful way by what we found there. In that sense, there's as much of Ian in me as there is of Lucy, and I'd imagine I won't be the only one who feels that way.

Q. At what age do you think a child should be educated about human sexuality?

I'm not the expert on that, but I've seen it borne out that the more honest parents are (at an age appropriate level), the more gracefully their children come to accept the complexities of the adult world. When my older daughter was two, she noticed a little girl eating with two women (who were probably the mother and grandmother, really) in a restaurant. Our conversation, verbatim, was this:

"Mommy, does some kids have two mommies?"


"Does some kids have two daddies, instead of any mommies?"


It wasn't any stranger to her than anything else in her two-year-old universe, and she went on happily eating her pickle. Why some people have to turn that same question into a national crisis, I'm unsure.

Q. You've earned wide acclaim for your short stories, but The Borrower is your first novel. How did you feel about making the leap?

I've actually been working on The Borrower since before I published my first story, so I haven't felt this as a change; it's more that I've been telling a big story alongside my short ones the whole time, and now it's finally getting its airtime.

I imagine I'll keep writing both for as long as I can. I found it healthy, while writing a novel, to have other projects going. Not just for my sanity, but also as a sort of filter for ideas: some really irresistible detail would occur to me, and I'd have to stop and think whether it was right for The Borrower, or whether it really belonged in one of those stories. Without other outlets, I'd have been tempted to throw it all in there. I might still be writing it, and it would be a thousand pages long. Lucy and Ian would be somewhere in eastern Indiana by now.

Q. What are you working on now?

My second novel is very tentatively called The Happensack, and it's the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told in reverse. It's been a very different writing experience for me this time around, with a lot of meticulous planning and plotting, and riveting historical research that's led me to spend much more time in actual libraries than I did when I wrote The Borrower.

I'm getting ready to immerse myself in the world of 1955 this summer, in preparation for writing that section of the novel, and so I'm amassing music and magazines and books from that year. It's sort of the Stanislavsky school of writing—a method I'm awfully glad I didn't employ for The Borrower.

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