Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 24, 2018

The Borrower (2011), by Rebecca Makkai

Most of the time, I vaguely despise the concept of ‘rewriting’ a famous book.  Ok, Margaret Atwood famously did it with The Penelopiad, but she was a well-established author making a feminist point, and obviously not compensating for an inability to think of her own story.  I want to read books that give me new ideas to think about, not recycled versions of other ideas even if they are beautifully written.

But the chutzpah of The Borrower is something else again.  Of all the books to choose to parody, surely Nabokov’s Lolita is the most audacious!

I chanced on The Borrower at the library, lured by the cover image.  The blurb told me only that the central character Lucy Hull is a children’s librarian, who finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when she sets out on a road trip across America with her favourite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake.  I knew before I started that there was a moral dilemma, and that the author was out to subvert the clichéd stereotype of librarians, but I was not expecting an absurdist parody of Lolita and a critique of Bush-era America and the emergence of the Christian Right.  I just thought this was going to be summer reading.

Ian’s fundamentalist Christian parents suspect that he is gay, and they send him to weekend classes to ‘save’ him.  These weekend classes are run by a charlatan called Pastor Bob, and they are premised on the religious belief that being gay is a choice and therefore amenable to pressure to change.  Lucy (who’d had an adult gay friend who committed suicide under pressure like this) is appalled by the psychological damage being inflicted on this bright and lively boy.  And Lucy is a rebel: already she is complicit in letting Ian read whatever he likes despite his mother’s list of prohibited books: Witchcraft/Wizardry; Magic; Satanism/Occult Religions; Adult Content Matter; Weaponry; The Theory of Evolution; Roald Dahl, Lois Lowry; Harry Potter and similar authors.  (And no sweets either, she tells Lucy).

It wasn’t so much good manners or restraint as a sort of paralysis of the tongue.  I wanted to ask her if she’d ever heard of the First Amendment, if she was aware that Harry Potter was not an author, if she thought we had books about Satanism lying around in the children’s section, if she was under the impression that I was Ian’s babysitter, reading tutor, or camp counsellor. Instead I took my pen and added another line to her list: “No candy.”

Every teacher has been in this situation, appalled by some aspect of parenting that is just plain wrong.  I have wanted to remove children from parents who’ve spent their pension on drugs and booze so that the child comes hungry to school.  But it’s a difficult issue when it’s a case of conflicting values rather than criminal neglect or abuse.  Lucy finds herself in this quandary when she finds Ian in the library after hours because he’s run away.  When she gets him into the car to take him home, he blackmails her by saying that he will accuse her of kidnapping him.

The Borrowers is not realism. The parody is intentionally bizarre and there are many droll allusions to well-known children’s books and aspects of American popular culture.  But Lucy’s deferral of decision-making has to be resolved somehow, and so, always seeing the situation from Lucy’s point-of-view, there are some meditations on her moral dilemmas.  As they travel from Missouri to Vermont with pitstops at cheap hotels, her crazy Russian émigré father’s house, and his eccentric friend’s, Lucy struggles with her feelings.  In Vermont, just over the border from Canada, she explores her romanticised idea that it’s a Promised Land:

What was so special about Canada in my mind, I wasn’t sure.  It wasn’t as if they had no extradition treaty.  It wasn’t as if they were any freer, any happier.  A little less inclined to religious extremism, maybe.  A little more welcoming to the Ians of the world, a little less welcoming to the Pastor Bobs. But not much.

And she realises that if Americans flee there because they are uneasy about how things are, it will become just like the place they’ve left behind.

I already knew what would happen.  We settlers would proclaim ourselves a city on a hill.  We’d slowly push the native Canadians onto reservations in the Yukon.  The friendlier ones would teach us how to drill for oil.  They’d trade us Montreal for a handful of beads.

Within a few generations, the sight of a real Canadian would be rare.  Our children would dress like them for Halloween.  We’d name our country clubs after their fallen chiefs.

Our brave little nation would grow.  Global warming would make our weather tropical. America, scorched and obsolete, would fall into disrepair.  Other countries would come to envy New Canada.  But could we help it if our children had beautiful teeth?  Could we keep from shining our glorious light for all nations to see? Someone has to dominate the world. (p.265)

Using America’s most transgressive novel as a road map, author Rebecca Makkai is waving a flag for an end to moral relativism:

I was no moral relativist.  I couldn’t have been, or I’d have believed that Pastor Bob was entitled to his opinion, that the Drakes should raise Ian however they saw fit.  It had always bothered me that fundamentalists would assume, when you argued with them about gay rights or abortion or assisted suicide, that you were arguing that there was no absolute right.  When really I do believe in an absolute right; I just don’t believe in their absolute right.  I don’t believe that the universal truths are encoded by a set of ancient Aramaic laws about crop rotation and menstrual blood and hats. (p.288)

Plenty for book groups to argue about then, eh?

Author: Rebecca Makkai
Title: The Borrower
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2011, 324 pages
ISBN: 9780670022816
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Sounds intriguing. Hadn’t heard of this one.


    • No, nor had I. Not reviewed by any of the usual sources. Odd, that…


  2. Don’t forget Malouf, and Ransom in particular.

    I used to look askance at these sorts of books too, but have softened in attitude now, partly because of a good writer takes something like this on its because they feel they have something new to say about it, or that their work might reintroduce new readers to the old ideas. I think Jane Smiley’s A thousand acres was a good read, but it’s a long time since I read it.

    I’m always concerned though about whether these books can stand alone if you don’t know the original.


    • True, I had forgotten Ransom, and I think I’m also going to like Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.

      I was thinking more of the writing school graduates (no names, it’s Christmas Day so I will be nice) who can’t think of a story of their own so they rewrite someone else’s. Beautifully, of course, but not really anything new in terms of ideas.

      That kind of imaginative emptiness is not something I understand. I have ideas for 20 novels, I just don’t have the initiative to write them…


      • Haha, Lisa — at least you have the ideas. I don’t even have those. I just like to read other people’s ideas.


        • Well, I’m glad that authors can turn them into books… it’s an amazing skill when we stop and think about it.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. BTW I hadn’t heard of Makkai, until she came up a couple of times in last week’s Monday Musings, but not for this book.


    • Ah so, The Great Believers. I wonder that that’s about…


      • Apparently it’s about the AIDS epidemic from the 1980s on. Has some good recommendations.


        • That sounds a bit more serious than this one…


  4. Thanks for this review – I’ve considered this book a few times but then read the blurb (again) and been unsure. Sounds like a good choice for book group.


    • I’m intrigued… where did you hear about her? She was completely beyond my radar until I stumbled on this.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think I first saw it pop up on those ‘books I’m looking forward to’ posts but fairly sure it was also on Netgalley?


        • Ah. I don’t do NetGalley. That’s why I missed it!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Re-telling stories has a long and mostly honourable history, and of course we are both fans of Ulysses, but I get your point about graduates – they can’t bring much that is new to the original other than to show off their writing. I know Lolita relatively well, that is, it hasn’t completely faded from memory as so many books do, you don’t think The Borrower is sufficiently different to make the attempt worthwhile?


  6. I would say that The Borrowers is a rare example of a successful re-telling, and also (on the strength of some of the reviews at Goodreads) that having read Lolita first is essential, in order to ‘get’ the deliberately transgressive plot.


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