Melissa Pilakowski: The Last Book I Loved, The Borrower

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You are 25 years old, and since college you’ve been shelving children’s books in a small Missouri library and living on the top floor of a theater, where you are banned from flushing your toilet during performance hours.  The lives of your alcoholic boss and wheelchair bound co-worker are more appealing than your own.

How do you add excitement to your life?

  1. Kidnap Ian, an effeminate 8-year-old library patron, from his anorexic mother, who believes Harry Potter will poison his mind, and his evangelist pastor, whose testosterone-building program is satisfaction-guaranteed to knock the homosexuality right out of the boy.
  2. Sleep with an aspiring pianist whose magnum opus reminds you of a floor cleaner commercial.
  3. Visit your father’s ferret-loving friends in exotic Pennsylvania.  The fact that you suspect they are in the Russian Mafia is neither here nor there, since your father is a member too.

If you’re Lucy Hull, you choose all three.

Unusual twists of genres such as this are liberally sprinkled throughout Rebecca Makkai’s debut novel, and it’s these fun, unexpected niblets of writing that make The Borrower the latest book that I have loved.  Makkai drops in revised versions of  children’s literature such as Goodnight Moon and Choose Your Own Adventure stories, but she also includes inventive step-by-step instructions on how to brush your teeth like an eight-year-old and a spreadsheet of her successful committal of all seven deadly sins.  These quirky changes of genre make the novel worth reading in itself.

The voice behind it all is the heroine of the book, the lonely Lucy Hull (although she insists she isn’t the hero in the prologue entitled “Ian was never happy unless there was a prologue”).  After pursuing that ever-so-practical English degree, Lucy has spent the past five years as the children’s librarian in a quiet Missouri town.   Even though she’s only 25, you can already envision Lucy in forty years:  the stereotypical book marm sporting nylons, Birkenstocks, and an alcohol problem.

Even though you know child abduction is wrong, you still root Lucy on when she “inadvertently” kidnaps 8-year-old Ian.  The two end up fleeing across the heartland of America, Lucy at the wheel and Ian directing the way.

Not that Lucy has planned it—she’s barely a willing accomplice since Ian won’t give up his address.  And at first, it’s only a few miles out of town to give her a chance to talk to Ian. Just as many of life’s transgressions that start small—the few dollars out of the petty cash that turn into thousands of missing dollars a year later, the innocuous emails to a coworker that blossom into a full-on affair—Lucy’s few miles driving out of Hannibal turn into a full-fledged kidnapping.

Suddenly I feel like I’m in the car riding shotgun, with Lucy in the driver’s seat and Ian in the back (because that’s where children are safest), and as the miles click by on the odometer, I’m just as invested as Lucy is about how we’re getting out of this predicament unscathed.

Of course, the title The Borrower packs a double meaning—Ian borrows books from the library to open up his world while Lucy borrows Ian to open her own.

But the book itself isn’t one worth borrowing.  You’ll want your own copy to keep.


Melissa Pilakowski often borrows books, occasionally borrows trouble, and as a high school English teacher, invites you to borrow any of her freshmen or sophomores for an extended cross-country road trip—due dates will not be enforced. She earned her MFA from the University of Nebraska this summer. More from this author →