When I was young and had just gotten in trouble for punching my brother or something because he’d done something to annoy me, my mother used to tell me, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” This little piece of aphoristic wisdom was constantly in my mind as I read Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower. In Makkai’s tale of misguided adventure, a young librarian becomes concerned about one of her young patrons and ends up aiding and abetting his attempt to run away from home.
Lucy Hull became a children’s librarian in a small midwestern town because she didn’t want to rely on her father’s probably illegally acquired wealth. It was the first job she could get. Because she doesn’t have a degree in library science, Lucy tends to overcompensate when matters of censorship and privacy come up. One of Lucy’s young patrons becomes her favorite. Ian Drake is a devoted reader, but his mother makes it hard for him to read anything more challenging than the Hardy boys. In fact, Ian’s mother delivers a list to Lucy of all the topics Ian is not to read about. The list almost sends Lucy into a rage right on the spot. The list, the small scars on Ian’s face, his evangelical parents, and his enrollment in what is probably a “gay rehab” program all combine into a giant knot of worry for Lucy.
Then, one winter Sunday, Lucy walks into the library to discover that Ian has run away. When she tries to drive him to his grandmother’s, Ian tells Lucy that he will say she kidnapped him if she does. Ian’s “grandmother,” he tells her lives somewhere else. Lucy first drives to Chicago, then Pittsburgh, and on to New England, following Ian’s made up directions. She knows he’s lying, but she knows that jail time awaits her if she goes back.
When Lucy first learned about Ian’s situation, she developed a protectiveness towards the boy. She was convinced that she knew better than Ian’s mother what was good for the boy. Ian is rumored to be gay but, at ten years old, it’s hard to say why anyone thinks this. Ian just doesn’t fit the stereotype of what a boy “ought” to be. He’s not good at sports, prefers to read, and gets along with girls more easily than with boys. His evangelical parents are worried about. Neither Lucy or Ian’s mother is doing the right thing for Ian. Lucy has no right to do what she does, but Ian’s mother is exposing the kid to the psychological damage conversion therapy will cause (even if the kid isn’t gay).
As I read, I realized that Lucy is as much in need of a rescue as Ian. She’s 26 and she’s gone to college. With an apartment and a job, Lucy should be a functional adult. And yet, she’s been running away since she left home to go to school. I don’t think she can say what she’s running toward, just that she’s running away from her father and his probable ties to the Russian mafiya. She’s lived her life in books and never really had to grow up. Her father, who fled the Soviet Union when he was 20, is always there to provide a safety net. To complicate things further, as Lucy flees with Ian, she learns from family friends that her father’s stories about his time in Russia were even more fictitious than she knew.
Still, I can’t help but like Lucy. She reminds me of myself. She says things about the necessity of reading and the importance of intellectual freedom that I’ve probably said myself. Passages like this one make me love Lucy a little bit:
I refused to have bookshelves, horrified I’d feel compelled to organize the books in some regimented system—Dewey or alphabetical or worse—and so the books lived in stacks, some as tall as me, in the most subjective order I could invent.
Thus Nabokov lived between Gogol and Hemingway, cradled between the Old World and the New; Willa Cather and Theordore Dreiser and Thomas Hardy were stacked together not for their chronological proximity but because they all reminded me in some way of dryness (though in Dresier’s case I think I was focused mostly on his name); George Eliot and Jane Austen shared a stack with Thackeray because all I had of his was Vanity Fair, and I thought that Beck Sharp would do best in the presence of ladies (and deep down I worried that if I put her next to David Copperfield, she might seduce him). (30*)
Lucy makes bad choice after bad choice, but I couldn’t help but root for her a little bit as she dug herself deeper into trouble in her misguided attempt to save a child.
* Page number approximate. Quote taken from the kindle edition.