Messing about on BN.com, I just found this review I wrote (originally at the now-defunct Union Square Stables blog) of Sara Gruen’s Riding Lessons.
YOU GUYS. I LOVE THIS BOOK. I don’t have it anymore, and I’m going to have to go see if I can find it. A used-bookstore excursion may be in my future. I know it’s in beautiful new editions now, with the success of her other little book, Water for Elephants. (You may have heard of it. I didn’t get very far into it, myself.)
Take a look at the review and then check out this great little horsey novel!
I recently lost two afternoons of potential farm work due to a fabulous gut-wrencher of a horsey novel: Riding Lessons, by Sara Gruen.
Sara is much more famous for Water for Elephants, her New York Times bestseller. I never got around to reading it and all six of the local copies were checked out, so I suppose it’s still quite popular.
But this book – oh, it is unapologetic in its horsiness. She could have dumbed it down and made it a bestseller, perhaps, and I love her so much for keeping it technical. You’ll just have to know the difference between French and German dressage, won’t you, if you want to understand why the new trainer has such an impact on the main character, and if you can’t decipher why she would have preferred the bit wasn’t a slow twist, well you’ll just have to wonder forever. Or take the effort to google it.
Annemarie, the fallen Olympian, the Girl Wonder who took a bad fall right before Rolex, lost her horse, and never went near another one, is a protaganist easy to relate to, for those of us that gave up riding and are slowly rediscovering it. Perhaps we don’t all have falls as tragic or as life-changing as hers, but they still remain in your mind, years later, making you a bit windy when you think of getting back on a horse. Or, in Annemarie’s case, even going near a horse.
But when things fall apart, horses are always there, even when you think you’ve abandoned them for good.
The horse of this book is unexpected, as much for his coloring (“brindled chestnut”) as for his breed. I cannot quite figure out why Sara Gruen would make a four-star event horse a Hanoverian instead of a Thoroughbred – especially when Annemarie’s original horse would have been competing in the mid-80s, while Thoroughbreds still ruled eventing.
I also don’t understand why she shattered his pastern (don’t worry, it’s in the first six pages) during a stadium course.. it would have been much more probable for him to have had a heart attack. Perhaps she was shying away from making it too close to the death of Sailor in “Riders”, since there are a few phrases that make me think she’s read Jilly Cooper’s amazingly trashy and fabulous show-jumping novel.
But Sara makes up for these tiny confusions with a completely immersive writing style. Not to say the entire book, but in a few of the riding scenes, like…
“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.”
It goes on.
Don’t you just love it? The cadence of the sentence, the way it pauses slightly for each comma and then just carries on, pause, carry on, pause, carry on – it’s a canter stride, and then the next sentence, a breathless rush – that’s the fence .
There is a simply beautiful paragraph about a horse’s death, imagined, that is, that I cannot share out of context, it would just be wrong. But do read it.
Plotline, oh yes, there’s a plotline, an insurance scheme, a good-looking vet that clearly reads Fugly Horse of the Day first thing every morning, a seductive French dressage trainer, a rebellious teenager, a boring non-horsey husband, autocratic parents in crisis. Everything, in short, that you need.