Flight of Fancy
David Copperfield opens with the intrepid orphan wondering “whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life.” In The Borrower (Viking, 2011), children’s librarian Lucy Hull begins by confessing the opposite. “I might be the villain of this story,” she concedes. “Even now, it’s hard to tell.” With this cheeky allusion to one of literature’s most famous first lines, author Rebecca Makkai, MA English ’04 signals that storytelling itself shapes how her characters try to understand their world.
Recent college grad Lucy, 26, has taken the library job primarily to reject any help from her father, a wealthy Russian immigrant living in Chicago. But fleeing to the remote Midwestern town—“Let’s call the scene of the crime Hannibal, Missouri,” she fibs—doesn’t stop her from obsessing over dramatic family lore. Narratives of escape and rescue filled her childhood. Centuries of scholar-warrior ancestors fought Good versus Evil under Tsarist and Soviet tyrants; the family crest is a “book in right hand, severed head on pike in left.”
Even though Lucy has deliberately fled her father’s orbit, her work with classic children’s literature reinforces similar themes. The behavior of characters from Huck Finn and the Wizard of Oz intrigues her almost as much as her most imaginative pint-sized patron, Ian. At 10, Ian is already a voracious bookworm and regular attendee at Lucy’s story hours. But his uptight fundamentalist mother strictly limits what Ian is allowed to read: only “books with the breath of God in them.”
Lucy’s First Amendment hackles bristle. She starts sneaking age-appropriate—but also forbidden—books to Ian by letting him borrow them under her library card. As Ian grows increasingly moody, Lucy learns that the child is attending sessions with a ‘Pray-Away-The-Gay’ pastor. Ian’s bookishness and sensitivity and lack of aptitude or interest in contact sports have apparently triggered his homophobic parents’ early warning sirens.
As Lucy sees the bright child deteriorate, she seethes. “Like a good Russian, I wanted to break into Pastor Bob’s house and poison him,” she muses. “Like a good American, I wanted to sue somebody. But like a good librarian, I just sat at my desk and waited.”
Until one morning Lucy arrives to open the library and finds Ian camping out there. He has a hobo knapsack and a sort-of plan for running away. All the stories that Lucy has been raised on—tales “of Russian revolutionaries and refugees,” of Huck, of Dorothy and her crew—color how she views what follows: an impromptu, cross-country road trip with Ian.
Did Lucy kidnap a 10-year-old library patron? Or was she actually kidnapped by him? It’s all in how each character perceives the story.
On the combined budget of a librarian and a fifth-grader, the duo doesn’t get far without seeking help from Lucy’s dad. The fresh cash infusion allows them to resume Ian’s evolving scheme: to reach his grandmother in Vermont.
Makkai movingly sketches complicated parenting relationships: the permanent but ever-changing link between exuberant father and reluctant daughter, the temporary but life-changing connection between accidental guardian and wounded child. Each character is memorably drawn, and their relationships unfold in unexpected ways.
The plot is a little far-fetched in the age of Amber Alerts, omnipresent security cameras, and the Internet. Gone for 10 days, the odd couple travels major highways in Lucy’s easily identifiable car, using ATMs and cell phones. But Makkai transports us into the stories her characters believe about themselves. And somehow we find ourselves eager to drift on their Mississippi, to follow their yellow brick road.
Quirky characters, verbal acrobatics, and a humorous take on some of life’s sadder moments. These are just a few of the things that seem to make Joan Connor, MA English ’84 tick in her most recent collection of stories called How to Stop Loving Someone (Leapfrog Press, 2011). And they are also the very things that will keep you flipping the pages.
Connor enjoys language, and that is abundantly—if exhaustingly—illustrated throughout the book. Her turns of phrase and circuitous wordplay create an engaging platform for inviting the reader into the story. From highly unusual analogies to tongue-rolling alliteration and assonance, Connor draws on our imaginations to draw us into the tale. “The continent is shrinking around me like a polyester costume washed one too many times,” she writes in “If It’s Bad It Happens To Me.” And Muriel, the main character in “The Writing on the Wall,” can slip by unnoticed because she “moves as smooth as an ice cube melting.”
Connor also seems to harbor a certain fascination for the darkly ironic. Two potential lovers are magnetically and compassionately drawn to an injured fox yet miss the opportunity to connect with each other in “The Fox”; a long-distance friendship fails miserably to become anything more than a sad and emotionally vacant tryst in “What It Is”; and a phone number relisted under the name William Butler Yeats leads to one man’s forlorn contemplation of the world through the lines of the dead Irish poet in “The Folly of Being Comforted.” In Connor’s world, night doesn’t simply fall; it plummets.
In “Palimpsest,” Connor makes a metaphor of her title on so many levels it can be hard to keep up—she portrays the old mill town in the story as “nestled in the corner of a riparian confluence” but now finding “its geographic situation anachronistic.” And later she describes the main character, Caspar Weems, as “a solitary man, serious, sedulous about obituary writing” who had “studied the styles and tones of other funereal columns with artistic perspicacity, noting the range from the lugubrious to the lurid, from the lachrymose to the laudatory, from the solemn to the silly.” If she doesn’t send her readers to the dictionary at least once during each story, they’re not reading closely enough.
Throughout the collection, there’s an urgency to Connor’s writing that pulls the reader along. Whether it’s the rhythmic cadence of her words or the relentless twists of fate facing her characters, there’s a sense of expectation and hope that demands the turning of the page. The title story, which comes near the end of the book, is in itself a perfect encapsulation of the collection. “How To Stop Loving Someone: A Twelve Step Program” recounts the downward spiral of a melodramatic and self-conscious narrator. It’s written in steps, dutifully luring you from “first” to “twelfth,” only to confront you at the bitter and downtrodden end with this: “return to step one” and “repeat the above.” Because, after all, that’s exactly how life works.
MA English ’94
Tweet Heart (Hyperion, 2010) by Elizabeth Rudnick ’02
The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes (Timber Press, 2010) by Sasha Duerr ’99
The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-first Century (Scribner, 2011) by Alex Prud’homme ’84
Fading Memories from a Vermont Hillside (Shires Press, 2010) by Robert ’73 and William Badger
Lady Painter: A Life of Joan Mitchell (Knopf, 2011) by Patricia Albers, MA French ’72
Swimming in the Daylight: An American Student, a Soviet-Jewish Dissident, and the Gift of Hope (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011) by Lisa Paul, Russian School ’83
Tex: A Book for Little Dreamers (Trafalgar Square, 2011) by Dorie McCullough Lawson ’90