It is a book about friendship, books reading and teaching....
As with so many contemporary classics of female friendship--and make no mistake, The Book Borrower joins the ranks--Alice Mattison's novel begins in a park with two young mothers minding their children. Toby Ruben and Deborah Laidlaw strike up a prickly, talky relationship when Deborah loans Toby a book, Trolley Girl. Toby is charmed by her new friend: after Deborah calls, she "felt that swirl in the throat, as when the teacher said hers was the best; and she was also troubled." She's equally charmed by the book, reading as she pushes her baby in his stroller, reading late into the night. Trolley Girl forms a narrative-within-the-narrative; we read it along with Toby. It is the memoir of a woman whose sister was killed in a 1921 trolley strike. A third sister, an anarchist rabble-rouser named Jessie, may or may not have been responsible for the death.
Ten years later, despite their problems, Deborah and Toby are still friends, still raising their families together. They may talk about Trolley Girl, but there seems to be little time for reading; instead, the two women teach classes, take classes, scold children. The novel leaps ahead another 10 years: The women's friendship comes to a tragic end. Just when Toby is at her lowest ebb of despair, who should appear in her (real) life but Jessie, the anarchist sister, who happens to live nearby. Jessie brings Toby an unexpected measure of comfort.
Alice Mattison's novel of friendship and history succeeds on so many levels it's almost dizzying. As a portrait of friendship it is difficult and true. As a diagram of loss it is exacting and rigorous. Yet the author has bigger goals here. Like Margaret Drabble in her later work, Mattison seeks to connect the bloody events of the world to the quiet lives of her characters. And, finally, she comes up with an allegory of reading itself: the character Jessie steps out of the pages of Trolley Girl
to provide Toby with the solace she needs. So books daily come to our rescue.
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