HN book critic Erin McCabe takes Bev Pettersen’s thriller/romance Color My Horse out for a gallop.
I almost didn’t make it out of the starting gate with Bev Pettersen’s thriller/romance Color My Horse. Set at Belmont Park, the novel opens with a death at the pond and moves quickly into a colic back at the stables. While I admired the way Patterson ramps up the tension right from the get-go, it was the way the colic was handled that almost made me call it quits. I mean, what trainer, especially a race track trainer, doesn’t have Banamine on hand to administer the second a horse acts a teensy colicky? And why do the characters immediately leap to thinking surgery might be necessary? But then again, I’ve never had anything more fancy than a racetrack reject, so maybe a stakes-graded horse with a bout of colic caused by an improper cool-down does get sent off to the clinic for several days of monitoring.
That said, despite our bad break from the gate, I pressed on because I liked trainer Mark and his way of being. The way he talks to Belle as she’s colicking shows that he cares about the horses in his stable, a trait he exemplifies throughout the novel, and that’s a side of the racing world that often doesn’t get portrayed. The plot thickens when Jessica, granddaughter of Mark’s wealthiest client Mr. Boone, gets foisted upon Mark as a sort of dare. Jessica, a ski-team Olympic hopeful until she was injured, doesn’t want to work for her grandfather’s company despite her grandfather’s relentless pressure. Instead, she wants to open a dog daycare. Her grandfather agrees to give her the start-up funds if she can hack it working at the racetrack for the rest of the meet. Obviously, he expects her to fail (P.S. He’s used to getting his way).
From the moment Jessica walks into Mark’s barn, well, I couldn’t help but like her. Though she’s mostly clueless about horses (which allows Patterson to explain a lot of racetrack procedure which I found, frankly, fascinating), she almost immediately bonds with Buddy, the horse she’s given to groom, inspiring him to greatness. Of course, as in most (all?) romances, it seemed pretty obvious from the moment Jessica and Mark meet that the two of them are going to get together. While I was rooting for them, I did find their actual liasions a bit short of romantic. You know those cowboy types who like to throw a saddle on their muddy horses and lope off without any warm up? That’s what the sex scenes between Jessica and Mark seemed like to me. But aside from that, Pettersen does such a great job of throwing obstacles between them (whether it’s the creepy dude who keeps stalking Jessica or Jessica’s own grandfather or the young kid Jessica takes under her wing, or…) and building the suspense. In that sense, the romance plot is a closer—you have to wait until the last second to find out the end result and even then it’s a photo finish.
That’s Pettersen’s strength: keeping the reader guessing. Each storyline (the murder mystery, the romance, and the grandfather plot) has an unexpected element to its conclusion, so getting an Exacta is impossible. And because Pettersen isn’t afraid to let her characters get hurt (we are at the race track, after all), the pacing of the novel kept me in a steady state of dread and anticipation the entire book. I would have liked some more development of certain minor characters (especially Jessica’s best friend Maria), but who has time for that when you’re doing a race horse gallop?
Erin McCabe rides two OTTB mares and hopes to someday soon get back to competing at horse trials. Her first novel, I Shall Be Near To You, is forthcoming from Crown Publishing in January 2014. You can learn more at erinlindsaymccabe.com.
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