Realistic Fiction

THE BORROWER by Rebecca Makkai

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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.

THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold

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Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon takes a shortcut home from school through a cornfield where her middle-aged neighbor, George Harvey, is waiting.  When she accepts his offer to show her his cool underground den, he rapes and murders her, disposing of her dismembered remains in a sinkhole.  The story unfolds as Susie’s ghost watches her father, mother, sister and friends deal with the tragedy of her death and search for answers and justice.

This book wasn’t quite what I expected when I first read it. I thought the main thrust of the plot would be devoted to tracking down her killer and bringing him to justice. But it was much more subtle and complicated than that. It’s an upsetting story, but having Susie’s ghost as narrator lends a sort of peace to the story that it wouldn’t have had being told by the father or the detective. The reader knows from the start what happened, so the pressure for justice and the need for the characters to learn the killer’s identity isn’t quite the same as it would be if we needed that information as well. Also, while Susie is dead to the characters, she is very much alive to the reader. It is upsetting, to be sure, but it is not just another serial killer book.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon

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Seven minutes after midnight, Christopher John Francis Boone found a dead dog outside of Mrs. Shears’ house, stabbed straight through with a garden fork.  Since Christopher’s teacher had encouraged him to write a story, he decides to write a murder mystery: an account of his own investigations into the dog’s death.  Despite his father’s command that he “stay out of other people’s business,” he sets out to detect who killed the dog—and ends up uncovering a host of family secrets in the process.

Christopher has Asperger’s syndrome.  The entire novel is told in his voice in a stream-of-consciousness style which gradually reveals the details of his life to the reader.  The book examines both the challenges that Christopher faces in relating to his family and those around him and the beauty of his world and his unique and brilliant perspective on life.  Mark Haddon, who has worked with children on the autism spectrum, crafts the story masterfully around the murder mystery framework.  Christopher’s voice is believable and clear, and his experiences range from humorous to heartbreaking.  I highly recommend it!

PRIMARY COLORS by Joe Klein

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Primary Colors was originally published anonymously in December, 1996, and caused immediate controversy.  The novel follows a Southern governor’s campaign for the Democratic Party Nomination for President; but each character is a near exact replica of a member of Bill Clinton’s staff.  Jack Stanton (the Clinton figure) runs into trouble on the campaign trail when news breaks of his affair with his wife’s hair dresser.  He fiercely denies these claims and his aide Henry (the narrator and protagonist) struggles to cover up his messes.  He soon enlists the aid of the loud-mouthed ex-mental patient and former Stanton political adviser Libby to help him “dust-bust.”  The novel reveals the inner machinations of political campaign, the conflicts between Stanton’s staff and his ambitious wife’s staff, the temptation of negative advertising, the pitfalls of staff romances, but above all, the idealistic and genuine principles on which Stanton and his wife build their campaign.  These principles are tested and tried throughout the novel, and in the end, Henry and Libby administer the ultimate test of Stanton’s true character.

Joe Klein, a journalist, was not involved in any Clinton campaigns.  Yet his observations and imaginations of how the larger-than-life personalities might interact proved accurate.  Immediately upon the book’s anonymous release, White House staff members began to accuse one another of having written it and of revealing too many personal details.  The novel is an engaging–and apparently perceptive–glimpse into our nation’s political system.

The 1998 Mike Nichol’s film starring Adrian Lester, John Travolta, Emma Thompson, and Kathy Bates, is an excellent adaptation.  Klein actually confesses that when writing the character of Libby, he pictured Kathy Bates.