There and Back Again

Sometimes you have a strange coincidence in your reading life, one where books you have recently read have enough in common that parts of them can become confused in your mind.  This happened to me within the last month.  Colleagues here at the library had been pressing me to read the Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith.  I had enjoyed a couple of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, and especially liked the Sunday Philosophy Club books, so it was not an aversion to his work that kept me off Scotland Street.  I just had not gotten around to these.  But in early July, I picked up the first one, 44 Scotland Street,[1] and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Smith had written this as a serialized novel for The Scotsman, Scotland’s daily paper.  Because of this, it’s in short segments, light-hearted for the most part, and very much focused on characters and the situations in which they find themselves.   A good read for the summer, and I look forward to reading Espresso Tales, starting this week, on audio.

In the meantime, I had read several good reviews of a new book by Rebecca Makkai, The Borrower[2]. The central character, Lucy, is a librarian, so let’s just say it had a certain appeal.  I decided to put myself on the hold list for the Overdrive e-book copy, and got it last week.

At first blush, the two might seem to have very little in common.   Smith’s book is set in Edinburgh, and Makkai’s begins in Hannibal, Missouri, [or a made-up place that she calls Hannibal] a great distance from Scotland in miles and in sensibilities.  Smith is an old hand at writing, with well over twenty books published, whereas this is Makkai’s first novel.  But uncanny similarities start to crop up in the plot lines, things you might not notice if you had not read these books within a couple of weeks or months of each other.  In Scotland, the main character is a young woman named Pat, who is on her “second gap year.”  In other words, she has no real idea of what she wants to do with her life.  She had been living with her parents, but when the story begins she has moved into an apartment she shares with a stranger, a young man named Bruce.  Pat gets a job with an art gallery which is run by Matthew, who is hopelessly inept and clueless about art.  In the apartment building reside a five year old boy, Bertie, and his mum Irene.  Irene believes Bertie to be extremely intelligent and superior to all children his own age.

In The Borrower, the main character is Lucy, a children’s librarian in a small library in Missouri.  She ends up in library work, not because it’s her deep desire to be a librarian, but because the job essentially falls in her lap.  Though her father, a Russian immigrant, has money and some shady business connections, and could have set her up anywhere, she chose to move from her parents’ home in Chicago to an apartment above a theater in Hannibal, with apartment mates who are all actors.  The story revolves around her relationship with a young library patron, Ian Drake, age ten, whose mother is overbearingly strict.  Ian is a voracious reader, but his mother wants Lucy to censor what he checks out of the library.  The family is fundamentalist Christian, and has enrolled Ian in a group whose purpose is to dissuade young people from choosing to be gay.

Ian eventually runs away from home and spends the night in the library.  The next day, when Lucy comes into work early and discovers him, he convinces her to take him to his grandmother’s house–even though she knows he has no grandmother.  What ensues is nothing other than a wild ride–a long and involved road trip, first to Chicago where she encounters her parents; then to Pittsburgh, where they visit with her aunt and uncle in their ferret-filled home; and on to New England, where they eventually end up within sight of Canada.  At key points, Lucy takes it upon herself to assure Ian that he is all right the way he is [which she, and every adult he meets, assumes is gay].  Ian, for his part, seems rather uninterested in the topic.  He’s having the time of his life, an adventure that could be rivaled only by those he has read about in his beloved books.

In the end, the one sure thing Lucy takes away from the experience is an unshakable belief that reading is good, and that books can save you.  Or as one reviewer puts it, “Every conflicted word Lucy utters in Makkai’s probing novel reminds us that literature matters because it helps us discover ourselves while exploring the worlds of others.”[3]

Though Makkai’s book asks more serious questions of the reader than does Smith’s, both are great reads and make you look forward to the author’s next outing.  If you don’t read them back-to-back, you’ll do a better job than I did of keeping these interesting twenty-something young women and the gifted little boys sorted out in your mind.

[1] Smith, Alexander McCall.  44 Scotland Street.  New York:  Anchor Books, 2005.

[2] Makkai, Rebecca.  The Borrower. New York: Viking, 2011.


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