Apr 27, 2010

The Worst That Horse-y Fiction Has to Offer - Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen

In honor of Sara Gruen giving a lecture tonight in Syracuse, I decided to finally write up my book review of her debut novel, Riding Lessons.  I warn anyone who loved Like Water for Elephants to just probably stop reading now and just know that I positively hated this book.

Seriously.  I have heard that Like Water for Elephants is a good book.  Even my mother loved it, which says a lot actually if you knew my mother.  The thing is that I couldn't be bothered to pick it up and find out for myself.  And all because Riding Lessons is such a painful, excruciating mess of a book to get through.  I get really worked up about this book and its follow-up because when I came across it in the bookstore, I was SO EXCITED!  I love to discover new horsey-themed books.  And I can overlook a lot of flaws just to get my dose of horse fiction.

Not in this case.  There are so many cliches!  Annemarie Zimmer is the next great Olympic rider whose dreams are shattered when her beloved horse falls, killing himself and injuring her severely.  Of course she never rides again.  The story picks up decades later when she returns home to the family farm -- her husband divorcing her, her petulant daughter hating her....CAN I JUST SAY THAT I UNDERSTAND WHY?!  She is quite possibly the least sympathetic character even written.  She is stupid, selfish and has poor judgment.  In general, I just had no interest in knowing anything more about her and I frankly couldn't care less about what little plot development there was.  It was a case of her not being capable of taking care of the farm, not being able to care for her daughter, rescuing a horse that....wait for it....turns out to be the brother of her beloved horse who got killed, and it goes on and on in that vein, if you can believe it.  The dialogue is terrible, the characters are unsympathetic and you couldn't pack in more cliches if you tried.  Of course, the requisite happy ending is tacked on, but by the time you get there you're just honestly shocked that you didn't quit reading.  The only thing I can say in my defense is:  horses.  Otherwise I would not have gotten through the material.  And that really isn't a good enough excuse.  All the writing concerning horses is unrealistic and just annoying.  Not even worth reading for a dose of horsiness.

Busy Mom from Ohio, a commenter on Amazon, sums up my feelings perfectly:
"...I would be really upset if I had bought this book ... it was a painful novel to read and I just finished it an hour ago. I cannot express my shock that Gruen, who wrote one of the best novels I've read in some time wrote this book.

But this book is a big disappointment. If you love to read about horses and all that, you will be disappointed. This book is about a train wreck of a woman named Annemarie. Annemarie is one of the worst characters ever in the literature world as she is selfish, self-centered, self-pitying and rude. She comes home because she lost her job and her husband wanted to divorce her and plus, she wanted to help her parents since her father was diagnosed with ASL. She ends up driving the family's business into the ground, alienates her daughter even more and instead of resolving her differences with her father who was dying, she just hides in the stables and moan about how hard her life was ever since her accident. This is perhaps the weakest character I have ever come across and I do not say this lightly. She has a horrible meltdown throughout this book and it was very painful to read (I skimmed through a lot of it). Frankly, she comes across as a very spoiled, very privileged selfish brat.

Needless to say that this book is a major disappointment and even though it predictably ends well, the ending doesn't salvage a sour taste that this book has left me with."

And don't even get me started on the sequel.  Maybe tomorrow.

Edited to add:  Here's a really specific example of how the writing concerning horses is completely unrealistic.  On page 43-44, when she arrives back to her family home, checking out the horse business she's supposed to be taking over, the French classical dressage trainer is teaching a student and his horse.  He has a double bridle on, but is clearly (based on his difficulty executing the movements asked of him) not an educated grand prix horse.  But even if he were, it is ridiculous to think any random horse capable of doing what is described next, no matter if freaking Nuno Olivera were on board, "The man and horse are moving in sybaritic union now, floating effortlessly through one maneuver after another: a full canter pirouette followed by a canter half pass with lead change, and then impossibly - brilliantly - a capriole.  The horse leaps into the air and hangs there, seemingly suspended.  At the apex of his flight, his hind legs shoot out behind him."

I'm not even going to try to explain why that passage is utter poppycock.  Any competent rider knows exactly what I'm talking about.  Which makes me really question why this book exists...if her audience were horselovers, then what the hell is she doing writing about a capriole on page 44?  Yeah, like that'll establish credibility.  And if this is for just random people and the horse stuff is just peripheral, then why bother even having all the horsiness?  It just lures people like me in and bugs the shit out of us.

1 comment:

Marilou said...

Luckily, I read Water for Elephants first - it's so much better than Riding Lessons, which, I agree, sucks. It's like they were written by different authors. I definitely recommend reading it.