Another girl and her horse book?
I was enticed to read The Mare by Mary Gaitskill after hearing a review on NPR -- it's about an eleven-year-old Dominican girl living in Brooklyn, Velvet Vargas. Through the Fresh Air Fund, Velvet spends part of the summer in upstate New York, where she is introduced to horses. And so the story begins.
Many of us would buy this book on the title and cover alone, right? Yes, there are horses and a horse-crazy girl. But The Mare is a book about horses the way Moby Dick is a book about whales. In The Mare we see a girl's life transformed by her love of a horse -- but it's also about family, love, race, culture. It's a brutal story at times, but I connected with the characters and their interrelationships.
Written in first person -- each character speaks for him/herself -- the novel has the feel and all the introspection of a diary. The Mare is not a fast read, but it's not an intimidating read either -- it won't tax your vocabulary, and there are no paragraph long sentences to parse out. But take your time with this book. It's a powerful story told in surprisingly simple language, a lesson in how much can be conveyed with few words.
The story opens as Velvet says goodbye to her mother at the bus station. The Fresh Air Fund is sending her to upstate New York to visit a childless middle-aged couple, Ginger and Paul. While visiting, she forms a friendship with Ginger, a failed artist and recovering alcoholic. Ginger takes Velvet to a neighbor's horse barn and Velvet is drawn to the horses. Velvet's special empathy and feel for working with horses is apparent. Through Ginger's efforts, Velvet is allowed to continue to visit and ride the entire summer.
From then on, Velvet navigates two worlds -- the poverty and harsh life in Brooklyn and her abusive mother is depicted in stark contrast to the more privileged suburban life outside the city, and the horse world. This divided existence brings turbulence and strain, and at times Velvet's loyalties are torn. Her mother Silvia is threatened by the instrusion of a "second mother" Ginger. Ginger is well-meaning, but she comes to question her own motives and the wisdom of bringing Velvet into her life. In suburbia Velvet is an oddity, and the social awkwardness is palpable. "Are you in a gang?" she is asked by the first girl she meets at the barn. An adult meeting her for the first time proclaims, "Oh, you're the Fresh Air girl!"
In my first reading I don't feel I've grasped all this novel has to offer. I was so taken the beauty of the language and subtlety and complexity of the characters, I just let myself feel the story. It's one of few books I want to re-read.
In one of my favorite passages, the young rider Velvet goes to her first big horse show, as a spectator. She is deeply sensitive and connects emotionally with the horses in her home barn; she has a natural feel for them, like a horse whisperer, as the barn kids joke. But one day she is taken to a large hunter/jumper show...
"We came to the hunter ring 3... I only stood by the fence for a few minutes watching this gray horse with beautiful spots curving his neck against the bit while his rider made him canter around the same jump again and again. Then I went and sat on some empty bleachers. Because I did not want to be here. There were horses all around me and I did not feel them at all, it was like they were part of machinery that I didn't know how to work, and they were controlled by this machinery. All of them were beautiful, more beautiful than any horse at Pat's or Estella's, like models compared to the people you see on the subway. But I couldn't feel them. Horses usually make me feel calm, and these were making me feel something else.
And I was going to have to be here all day."