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A Review of The Book Borrower, Alice Mattison, William Morrow and Company. 278 pp. $24.00.
A new mother is pushing her baby in a carriage, while trying to read a book propped open on the carriage handle. Suddenly, the wheel catches in a sidewalk crack, the swaddled baby slides out onto the ground, and the mother is punished with a moment of guilty panic.
Who among us, mothers and book lovers, will not empathize with this woman? Who has not experienced the boredom, the isolation, the ambivalence, of new motherhood? And who has not felt the thrill of meeting another mother of small children and bonding fiercely over your common plight? In The Book Borrower, Alice Mattison creates a true and powerful portrait of contemporary motherhood. She has written, in essence, a love story, tracing the long and somewhat tumultuous relationship between the woman with the carriage, Toby Ruben, a new mother, an English teacher, and a Jew, and Deborah Laidlaw, a mother, an English teacher, and a Christian. The cultural differences between Toby and Deborah provide some of the conflict in their relationship.
As the book opens, Deborah, who already has two small children, serves as mentor to Toby as she adjusts to life with her newborn son. We then follow their relationship as Toby returns to work, has a second child, watches her children grow and move away, and faces mortality. While these two women remain best friends, there is nothing saccharine about their friendship. With great skill, Mattison traces the doubts, betrayals and heartache of Toby and Deborah's long relationship. This novel is rich with comedy and tragedy, and with fine observations of daily life. In particular, I cannot recall a finer portrait of the way mothers with small children interact, when intimacy verges on passion, and husbands risk becoming vestigial appendages. Mattison also provides wonderful descriptions of Toby's interactions with the women in the literacy class she teaches.
Intertwined with Toby and Deborah's story is a work of historical fiction: the memoir that Toby is reading when her baby slips out of the carriage. In this memoir, a young Jewish woman named Jessie, raised as an anarchist, becomes involved in the trolley strikes of the 1920s in a Massachusetts mill town, and ends up charged with murder. As Toby reads the book, the overt anti-Semitism of another era contrasts with the occasional doubts and paranoia Toby feels as a contemporary Jew. And the passionate political involvement of Jessie contrasts with Toby's absorption in motherhood.
I found the historical story, inevitably, far less riveting than the contemporary story of Toby and Deborah. Mattison does provide a highly readable glimpse of this period in American labor history. But somehow, the details of Jessie's story, while more dramatic than the story of Toby and Deborah, do not have the same glow of truth.
And in the final section of the novel the two plots come together in a way that feels contrived. What are the chances that Jessie herself would appear in Toby's life as a sage old woman? But I was willing to suspend my disbelief here, in order to follow Mattison's deep and complex characters, particularly Toby, to the end of the book.