Monday, May 12, 2008


The Book Borrower, Alice Mattison, William Morrow and Company Inc, 1999, 278 pp

I read this for a book group I was part of that has since gone defunct. Everyone else hated it; no one else finished it; no one even came to the meeting except the leader and myself. I loved it.

Toby Ruben is a young mother in the 1970s when she meets Deborah Laidlaw, another mother, in the city playground. Deborah lends Ruben a book about a female anarchist who was involved in a trolley workers strike in Boston in the 1920s.

The Book Borrower covers three decades of this rocky friendship between Ruben and Deborah, interspersed with Ruben's sporadic reading of Trolley Girl, which you read along with her. The women raise their kids and also teach side by side, first training workers at a daycare center, later at a local college. I think Ruben is the more intelligent of the two and this causes some problems in their professional relationship. Their friendship is ostensibly because of being mothers but on a deeper level it is an intellectual friendship between two women.

The book is rather dreamy as it is mostly about Ruben's inner life. There are no quotation marks or he said, she saids, in the text, so the reader has to stay alert and participate. Apparently that is just too hard for some readers (I know that sounds so snobby, but if you are going to join a reading group, come on), but I like contributing to a story with my own ideas. I also like these women because they are real people, as far as I recall the women I knew when I was raising my kids.

Maybe it is just me, but I find friendships with women a difficult area of life. Men, especially husbands, children and jobs get in the way and complicate what was natural in childhood. Mattison beautifully yet unflinchingly portrays the fragility, the tension, the strength and the need for women's friendships. Underlying this though is the truth that all human connections are tenuous at best; marriage, parenthood, professional relationships are all covered. By weaving in the story of the anarchist, who becomes an artist, Mattison runs the gamut. She says to me that despite all our efforts to be orderly, faithful and kind, anarchy rules. I agree!

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