Lucy never planned on becoming a children’s librarian. It was simply a job that she found after college–and not an overwhelmingly satisfying one. She has to deal with the incompetence of her boss and coworkers, with librarian stereotypes that kill her hopes for a social life, and with overbearing parents like Janet Drake. But it is Janet’s ten-year-old son Ian who makes Lucy’s job worthwhile. Despite the restrictions his mother attempts to place on his reading–no magic, no weapons, no theory of evolution–Ian always seems to sneak some great books past her, with Lucy’s help. But when Lucy discovers that Ian’s parents have enrolled him in a Christian camp to “correct” homosexual tendencies, she feels she must do more to help her young friend–whether he knows he needs her help or not. When Ian wants to run away, she gets into the car with him without really thinking through the consequences. They don’t have any real direction as they drive. They both simply know they want to escape from something.
This book was not my favorite. I think part of my problem with it is that I am a librarian and therefore found myself getting frustrated with the way the protagonist handled situations. I also sometimes worry that there is a public perception that when librarians defend “Intellectual Freedom,” what they are actually hoping to do is promote particular political and social agendas to children behind their parents’ backs–which is a false characterization of this policy in real life, but unfortunately true of the protagonist in this novel. If this were merely an extreme fiction, or if all of the protagonists actions were supposed to be morally questionable, I would find this less troubling. But it is difficult to pinpoint the line between actions the author sanctions and those we should be troubled by. Makkai consciously draws Lolita parallels throughout, but we are not supposed to see Lucy as a female Humbert. Some of Lucy’s actions which seem questionable to me are portrayed as positive: kidnapping = bad, but lying to parents and slipping children secret messages in the pages of seemingly innocuous books = good.
Of course what all of these unsettling issues add up to is a thought-provoking novel. I expect that it would be more enjoyable to someone who is not concerned about how it might reinforce misconceptions about the profession of librarianship, and to someone who has more patience for philosophical road trip novels than I do.