The Book Borrower

Excerpt from The Book Borrower:


Though she was pushing a baby carriage, Toby Ruben began to read a book

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On a gray evening in late November of 1920

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and the wheel of the carriage -- a big, skeletal but once elegant Perego she'd found in somebody's trash -- rolled into a broken place in the sidewalk. The baby, tightly wrapped in a white receiving blanket, glided compactly from carriage to sidewalk. He didn't cry. Like his mother, the baby would be troubled more by missed human connections than by practical problems; also the three-second rule held: as if he were a fallen slice of bread, Ruben snatched him up and ate him. Kissed him passionately and all over, dropping the wicked book into the carriage. She put the baby back where he belonged and picked up the book, but she didn't read for at least a block. Then she did read.

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On a gray evening in late November of 1920, an observer who happened to be making his way up the hill from Dressler's Mills to the streetcar line that ran to the principal square of Boynton, Massachusetts, might have noticed a sturdy young woman hurrying through the mill's gates. The air was full of cinders, which must have been why she reached up to tie a veil over her face, though she did so with a gesture so casual, so obviously

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Ruben had to cross a street. She closed the book. It was thin, with black covers, not new.

--Want a book? a woman in the park had said.

The woman wore a blue and white checked dress like a pioneer's, but sleeveless. A wide neckline bared her freckled chest; with good posture she chased serious, muddy daughters in pink pinafores. Ruben's baby, Squirrel, was three months old.

--Go, Squirrel, go, Ruben shouted, just so the woman, sweeping by, would speak.

--What? Sunny hair rose and settled.

--He's trying to put his thumb in his mouth.

The woman leaned over to look, her hair over her face, and Squirrel found his thumb for the first time. Excellent, said the woman, Deborah Laidlaw, straightening, then giving a push to the small of her back. She left her hand there. When their conversation, skipping some subjects, arrived at sex and husbands, Deborah said, Jeremiah has intercourse only to music.

--Any music?

--Folk songs.

It was 1975.

--Fuck songs! Ruben was surprised to have said that. Her hair was dark red but thin, and she was shorter than this impressive Deborah. In the songs, Ruben supposed, people built dams, harpooned whales, or cut down trees, while Jeremiah penetrated his wife.

--History. He'll read any book about history, said Deborah, but mostly trolleys.

--Trolleys?

--Streetcars. He's obsessed with the interurbans. But there aren't any songs about trolleys.

--Clang, clang, clang went the trolley! sang Ruben, flat -- who never sang for anyone but the baby.

--Doesn't count. Want a book?

Jeremiah had found it in a used bookstore. He had begged Deborah to read it, but she only carried it back and forth to the park in a striped yellow and white cotton tote bag.

--I am not interested in trolleys, said Deborah. Jeremiah has a theory about the person in the book. I don't care.

Review of The Book Borrower


From the New York Times Book Review


Women's Work

The tale of a 1920's labor leader is bound up with the lives of two contemporary women.

"Scenes From the Domestic Life" might be an appropriate subtitle for Alice Mattison's fiction, which centers on the seemingly mundane dailiness of women's lives. Mattison has taken action that often occurs in the wings and pushed it front and center, into the spotlight. In deceptively quiet, guileless prose, she has described the mind-numbing routine of child care and the fraught, complex relations of men and women. Only Margaret Atwood (in "Cat's Eye") has written as knowingly about friendship between women.

Mattison is a miniaturist who has almost perfect pitch for dialogue. This was brilliantly evident in her 1997 collection of intersecting stories, "Men Giving Money, Women Yelling," and in the portrait of a tight-knit, almost incestuous New York Jewish family in her 1995 novel, "Hilda and Pearl." But "The Book Borrower" represents a major breakthrough.

This emotionally wrenching, beautifully realized work is really two novels in one: the story of the close 20-year friendship of Toby Ruben and Deborah Laidlaw, who first meet in a New York City park in 1975 as young mothers; and the story of Jessie Lipkin, an anarchist millworker who in 1921 organized a trolley workers' strike in Boynton, Mass. The two narratives, told in different voices but both ending in tragedy, loop around each other gracefully, one reinforcing the other until they unexpectedly interlock.

Toby first learns of Jessie's story when Deborah lends her a memoir written by Jessie's sister. "Trolley Girl" vividly portrays the political unrest, anti-Semitism and left-wing activism of the 1920's. As Toby reads it, large sections of the memoir are inserted into the novel. But Toby's escape into the past is constantly interrupted -- often in midsentence -- by her domestic duties. She finally puts the book down, unfinished, when Jessie's high-minded idealism has horrific consequences. "Somehow I know" the memoirist states bitterly, "that my sister cares constantly about everything, even though she has behaved like someone who cares about nothing but ideas." Toby doesn't pick up "Trolley Girl" for 22 years -- when Jessie fortuitously turns up in person. Now an enfeebled old woman, she is still capable of making bad trouble.

What happens in those intervening years is shaped by the jagged course of Toby and Deborah's friendship, which makes up the core of "The Book Borrower." Both women become writing teachers. Although they are solidly married and between them produce five children, their husbands are relegated to the shadows. The men are indistinct, ancillary characters who appear mainly by proxy as their wives talk (mockingly) about them.

In this novel, as in most of Mattison's fiction, it is the women who matter. The friendship between Toby and Deborah overrides all the other relationships in their lives. It is fierce, intense, problematic. When Toby substitutes for Deborah in the classroom, she is indignant at how little work the students are required to do and unthinkingly passes this observation on to her superior. (Who said women weren't competitive?) To Toby's amazement, Deborah is infuriated. "You think abstract ideas are more important than people," she exclaims, echoing the judgment expressed in "Trolley Girl."

But this is emphatically not Mattison's perspective. A generous, empathetic writer, she believes that the human connection, while imperfect and fragile, takes precedence over any abstraction.

In the best scene in the novel, Toby again takes charge of Deborah's class while her friend is in the hospital. Distraught, on the verge of collapse, she writes on the blackboard the following paraphrase from "The Tempest": "You have taught me language and my reward is I have learned to curse." The writer, Mattison implies, plays a godlike role, using language to breathe life into her characters and then willfully to destroy them.
--Lore Dickstein
The New York Times Book Review