In her bracingly tough-minded tale of a discontented librarian who hits the road with a maladjusted 10-year-old, Rebecca Makkai tips her hat to a shelf-load of children's literature, offering sly echoes of everything from "Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White to "Where's Spot?" By Eric Hill, while crafting her own distinctive sound in a first novel definitely not for kids. Makkai avoids almost all the pitfalls of debut fiction, including sentimentality and undigested autobiography, and though her plotting isn't as deft as her characterizations, the wonderfully nuanced closing pages more than make up for the occasional longueurs that precede them.
Lucy Hull, didn't plan on becoming a librarian when she graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 2002, but she didn't want to go back to Chicago or be beholden to her father, a Russian immigrant who would have happily paid for "the most self-indulgent, nonfunded MFA" or finagled her a cushy job with one of his shady business connections. Instead, four years later, Lucy is the head children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri — well, actually, she admits, she's borrowed the name from the real Hannibal, "out there minding its own business."
We already know from the prologue that Lucy needs to cover her tracks because of what happened in "Hannibal." And we soon know that Lucy's wisecracking sublimates a simmering discontent ready to boil over into rage. She's restless and bored, "a would-be revolutionary stuck at a desk." She's tired of listening to Dad rail on the phone against the Patriot Act, urging her to "get out of this library business right away" before she's forced to collude with the "Soviet-style tactics" that drove him out of Russia.
Thank goodness for story hour regular Ian Drake, who shares the passion for books that is Lucy's fragile bulwark against despair. Unfortunately, Ian's fundamentalist mother is worried about his reading habits; the list of forbidden material she hands Lucy includes witchcraft, weaponry, evolution, Halloween, and anything by Roald Dahl or Lois Lowry. Mom is also worried about Ian's sexuality (every adult who meets him assumes he's gay) and has enrolled him in a class taught by Pastor Bob Lawson for children "whose parents suspected they were 'headed down the wrong path.'"
Lucy is appalled, the more so as she observes Ian becoming sneaky and sullen after a few weeks of Pastor Bob's ministrations. When she finds him hiding in the library one morning, she agrees to drive him to his grandmother, pretending to believe his vague directions but knowing all the while she's helping him run away. Lucy is as unhappy as Ian, as willing to leave it all behind and light out for the territory.
Their extended road trip takes them through Chicago, where Lucy picks up some cash from Dad, and Pittsburgh, where an old family friend reveals the unsavory truth about why her father left the Soviet Union. The momentum sags a good deal along the way. Lucy's increasingly elaborate lies, designed to prevent the folks back in Hannibal from connecting her absence to Ian's, grow almost as aimless as their journey toward Vermont, where Ian's grandmother allegedly lives.
What holds our interest is Lucy's sardonic, self-doubting narrative voice, and her refreshingly astringent relationship with Ian. These two misfits don't fall into each others' arms, vowing to make a new family in the comforting, hackneyed way of Hollywood movies. One of the hard lessons Lucy learns is that bonds of kinship are enduring even when damaging, that your past can rarely be outrun. "I no longer believe I can save people," she tells us at the end. Ian remains the same smart, difficult kid she met at story hour; she hasn't changed his life so much as given him a vacation from it.
But — and this is a big but — "I do still believe that books can save you," Lucy declares. This is not a sentimental affirmation, but a flinty faith: She is confident that, in order to get his hands on the "Books to Read" she lists for him, Ian will "bribe his babysitter … sneak out of the house at night and smash the library window … sell his own guinea pig for book money." A poignant epilogue hints that "save" is too simple a verb for the complex effect books have on the people who deeply love them. Yet 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.
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking, 324 pg., $25.95
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times