Horse Nation book critic Erin McCabe reviews Riding Lessons, the first novel by Water for Elephants author Sara Gruen.
See Sara Gruen Earn Her Stripes
First, a shout-out to Sara The High School Librarian (the very first commenter on my very first review) for the hot tip on this book. And secondly, I will confess: I have a distinct advantage when it comes to the ability to enjoy Sara Gruen’s first novel Riding Lessons because I have neither read the book nor seen the movie Water For Elephants and thus have no expectations.
There is much to like about Riding Lessons. Chapter One, for instance. Chapter One is my single favorite chapter in this novel. Told in first person present tense (as is the rest of the novel—but more on that later), Chapter One puts the reader in the moment, on Highland Harry’s back, as our protagonist Annemarie Zimmer guides her striped horse (no, he’s not a zebra) around the stadium course that is to seal their trip to Rolex and most likely, their spot on the Olympic team.
“I tighten my fingers, No, no, no Harry, not yet, I’ll let you, but not yet, and his ears prick forward, together this time, and he says, All right, and gives me a collected canter that feels like a rocking horse, so high on the up and so low on the down. And we rock around the corner and approach the first jump and he asks me, Now? And I say, No, and he says, Now? And I say, No, and then a stride later I can tell he’s about to ask again, but before he can I say, Yes, and he’s off and I don’t have to do anything else—won’t have to until we’re over and on the other side, and then I’ll just have to ask him again, and he’ll do it because he loves me and we’re one.”
It’s breathless and detailed and the stream-of-consciousness feels the way it does when you’re on course with your once-in-a-lifetime partner (even if you’re only jumping 2’6”). Even though the competition ends badly, with Harry crashing, injuring Annemarie critically and himself fatally, this is good stuff. It seems like Sara Gruen knows her horses. And I even double-checked the part about Harry being striped. It turns out being brindled isn’t just for pit bulls. There’s even a Brindle Horse Registry. Who knew?
After the fabulous first chapter, we flash forward twenty years. After her husband cheats on her (a horsey/chick lit staple, it seems) Annemarie bolts to her parents’ farm, whisking her 15 year-old daughter Eva along with her. Her arrival (and the circumstances surrounding it) stirs up all kinds of emotions, forcing Annemarie to re-examine her life, which has been devoid of horses since Harry died (note to self: always have a back-up horse to snuggle). Some of this gets predictable in the way that romance novels/chick lit often does— as in, of course Annemarie’s old flame is still living nearby and of course he is a single veterinarian (and who doesn’t want to date a horse vet?? Think of the savings!) and of course so is the head French trainer at her parents’ farm and of course one of them rescues a horse for Annemarie that is almost identical to Harry.
Some of this gets a little ridiculous and cliché—as in, Annemarie tries to cook an amazing French meal from memory and tries to dye her new horse’s stripes away to conceal his true identity. But this is balanced by Annemarie’s attempts to come to terms with the estranged relationship she has with both her parents, her difficulties in dealing with her utterly crabtastic daughter (Oh yeah, now I remember why sophomores were my least favorite grade to teach), and her reflections about the role of horses (or lack thereof) in her failed marriage. And of course, the horse stuff, which is mostly spot-on.
Except when it’s not. My biggest gripe with this book is that although the actual interactions the characters have with horses seem authentic, the details about Annemarie’s riding career are maddeningly murky and inconsistent. She’s an eventer, and her Austrian father was a Grand Prix dressage trainer (because that just magically happens when you’re Austrian), but the family farm is supposedly an A-circuit barn (now spearheaded by the aforementioned French dressage trainer). Huh? This made me lose confidence in the author (see also: my Internet search on brindled horses). Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume the neat explanation of these seemingly disparate facts was cut in the interest of having a more mass-market appeal (in which case: Boo).
And then there’s the first person present tense. I love how it puts the reader right there with the narrator in the heat of the moment (a la the fabulous Chapter One). But, it does have some limitations. For one thing, there’s no relief from being inside Annemarie’s head (a sometimes whiny, over-wrought place to be). It also makes it difficult to get to know the other characters and their motivations. And you can almost forget about Annemarie really reflecting or having much perspective about her actions because she’s always in the middle of doing them. This sometimes makes her seem over-reactive and immature. It also makes it seem like by the end of the novel, Annemarie hasn’t grown quite as much as we might like, although her final revelation about her failed marriage was satisfying in this respect.
All that said, Riding Lessons is a fast, page-turning read. It deals with some serious issues in enough depth to feel like it’s a click above a light read (sort of like the difference between an exit-the-arena-on-a-loose-rein walk and a working walk or cross-rails vs. 2’3”). It’s entertaining and horsey and will probably keep you up into the wee hours to finish it. Just don’t expect it to be Water for Elephants.
Oh, and P.S. There’s a sequel called Flying Changes.