Oct 8, 2008

Looking for a riding princess? Look no further!

Flying Changes
by Sara Gruen
Published: 2005

After finishing up Riding Lessons, I got to work on its sequel, Flying Changes.

Twenty years after her competitive riding career died, Annemarie Zimmer worries that her relationship with the man she loves is off course, and fears that daughter Eva's own dreams of Olympic glory will carry her far from home ... and into harm's way.

When the teenage Eva is invited to audition for a world-class trainer, Annemarie realizes that she must give Eva a chance to soar. But when Eva falls in love with a spectacular blue roan Nokota who hasn't let anyone ride him since his arrival at the barn, Annemarie's doubts come crashing back.

It is a time of change at Maple Brook, when fears must be saddled and broken. And one remarkable family must learn how to deal with Flying Changes.

So, the first thing I have to ask myself is if Riding Lessons really needed a sequel. Honestly, I can't help but come to the fact that I really don't think a continuation of the plot was necessary given that Riding Lessons wrapped up well and left little concern (on my part, anyway) for what would happen with the characters after all plot points concluded. It's not that I found the characters in Riding Lessons mediocre and uninteresting...it's just that their story seemed to be done. Annemarie became a part-time instructor at her mother's barn, her relationships seemed solid, she got her horse, she got back on said horse...it was done.

Apparently, it wasn't done. Annemarie is back, and I don't know how to feel about this. Nevertheless, I read the sequel. And I'm here to recap and report my findings. So here we go.

Since Riding Lessons, Annemarie has moved into Jean Claude's old apartment in the barn in an attempt to seem like she's a nearly forty adult who isn't living with her mother. The main house is too small to hold three people, so Eva and her mother are still living there while Annemarie is off doing who knows what in the barn. Immediately I tend to have an issue with this because it seems like Annemarie is shoving off her maternal duties on her mother so she can more easily sneak about with Dan. No wonder this Eva kid is so annoying -- her mother is desperately trying to act like she's 19.

There is also a host of new issues that have cropped up, obviously. Otherwise we wouldn't have a sequel, because all those concluded plot points have to unravel somehow, right? The issues are as follows:
  • Annemarie won't let anyone watch her ride Hurrah. She tends to ride him in the early morning, and she always (ALWAYS) rides him bareback. Because nothing can come between her and her horse...like a saddle. Or pants. No, actually, she does wear pants. I just sort of had to wonder about that part. So because she's so super secret about this, people start to think she needs therapy. Annemarie just wants to BE ALONE WITH THE HORSE. Why can't people understand? Here are my thoughts on this. If you make something a big deal, people tend to react by thinking you're eccentric or need therapy. It's just a given. So shut up or explain to them why you like to ride him alone. It's not like this is a big deal. BUT IT SO IS.
  • Eva wants to compete. Eva also happens to be a freakish, Mary Sue natural at riding. Annemarie, given her past, doesn't want Eva to compete. Not to mention it's ridiculously expensive to compete and so forth. Eva acts out in an annoying teenage manner by dumping her nice, stable boyfriend and getting an obnoxious boyfriend who smokes pot. She gets expelled for smoking pot. Etc.
  • Annemarie and Dan don't go out anymore. This is so many levels of horrible for poor Annemarie, who wants to go out! Or maybe she wants him around more often because he keeps going to pick up PMU horses from closing down "pee farms." Or maybe she wants to get married. Or maybe she's just a little insane. Or maybe she's just reading into her relationship way too much. Although, actually, it turns out that she just wants to get married. Mainly because she doesn't want to seem like such a failure anymore. Oh, and she loves Dan too and thinks she should have married him instead of Roger. So she wants to make up for her stupid, teenage mistakes. Or something.
Okay, so those are the issues. Getting back to the plot, Dan asks Annemarie to come stay at his place while he's in Canada picking up these mares because another mare at his place is about to foal and he needs someone to watch her. Annemarie doesn't know how to assist a foaling mare, but she agrees anyway. While she's there she gets a call about a horse someone wants to sell to the rescue. The rescue doesn't buy horses (except auctions, I guess), so Annemarie gets pissed off at her situation and agrees to buy this horse. She goes out there and deals with this Eugenie woman, her obviously neglected/abused horse, and winds up stumbling into a domestic dispute between Eugenie and her husband. The cops come. AGAIN. This is the fourth time in a year that Annemarie has been involved with the police. Anyway, she takes the horse/pony thing and takes it back to the rescue. The mare gives birth, although it's a breech birth, but like that stops Annemarie from being clumsily awesome and saving the day.

Mundane things happen. Really, this is like the best example for mundane details taking over a story. Annemarie wakes up to her daughter shouting for her to get dressed, Annemarie brushes her hair, Annemarie complains about being 39, Annemarie takes a bath, Annemarie rummages through refrigerators looking for beer, Annemarie takes up a whole page with trying to open a beer. It's just like that. So, during all of this, Eva gets expelled and Annemarie finally tells her mother about this vague phone call she got before the book started, which she's been thinking about for at least 80 pages, but is just now coming around to telling anyone about. Including the reader. This woman, Nathalie someone, wants Eva to come train with her. As in full time training, working, tutoring on the side so Eva could get some semblance of education...that kind of training. Because Eva has been kicked out of school, going to train with Nathalie is the best option. So they go to Nathalie's farm and Eva tries out and Eva is accepted because Eva is astonishingly amazing after only one year of formal lessons. I'm not even going to get into the dressage she does in her try out. Just know she's unrealistically amazing.

Then Eugenie pops up again. For seemingly no reason. Then she disappears. I don't know.

So Eva goes to Nathalie's farm. Meanwhile, Dan is going to take Annemarie out for her birthday at Annemarie's favorite restaurant. For some reason Annemarie gets it into her head that TODAY is the DAY. He is going to propose. She knows it. So she gets there and for some reason swats away every romantic gesture he tries to make, right down to refusing this desert she loves. Then he gives her earrings and she totally throws a fit and makes a scene and gets the hell out of there. It is OVER. Like, so over there's another scene of punching walls while Annemarie hides in Hurrah's stall, refusing to meet Dan so they can have an adult conversation about why she's a lunatic.

After this she goes out to a competition of Eva's. Roger, the asshole ex-husband, and his new family (because his new wife just had a shiny new baby) are supposed to be there. They fail to show. Red flags should be waving all over the place right about now. Eva goes into emotional turmoil and screws her dressage test to the point where there's no way she could place in the rest of the show. Eva throws more fits, Eva grows more tiresome, Eva falls off in the cross country, Eva has another fit, and finally Nathalie and Annemarie tell her it's over. She's not going to finish the competition. Eva has another fit, insisting that she wants to leave, blah blah blah, Nathalie calls her a spoiled brat, which is probably the biggest understatement in these two books, and demands that she come support her teammates in the show jumping round or she's not welcome back to her farm. For some reason, Annemarie takes Eva home instead. When they get there, Annemarie's mom tells her that Roger & Co. were in an accident. His new wife is dead and Roger is in critical condition and the baby is peachy keen. Mostly. So they have to go to the hospital and while they're there Roger finally dies. Everyone goes into more hysterics. Eva screams and cries, Annemarie cries, the baby cries...at this point I needed them all to shut up, and thankfully they sort of do. Because someone has to take care of this baby.

Annemarie wants the kid, but the kid is so new that Roger hasn't named a guardian in his will. His wife's family is a no go, Roger has no family, and that leaves Eva as the only family the baby technically has. Annemarie calls up Roger's law firm partners and they pull strings within the Minnesota system, and Annemarie gets the kid. But not before the social services woman likens Annemarie to Ted Bundy and Karla Homolka. SERIOUSLY. Like...some federal judge went over social services and this justifies Annemarie being compared to serial killers? I didn't get it when I read it, and it still makes no sense.

Anyway, during all of this, Dan shows up and proposes to Annemarie. Apparently he was always going to propose during the dinner, but Annemarie blew up before he could actually do so. He had the ring baked into one of the deserts. I don't know why he had the earrings also, but clearly he played that wrong. So he still has the ring. It's still encrusted with chocolate. He rinses it off and they do their thing and are engaged. They take the baby home. They do their new parents thing. They all decide to live in the same house at the farm, and will just put on an expansion so they're not sleeping in the living room. Dan and Annemarie get married. Eva gets to go back to Nathalie's place because Annemarie lies about when they hear about Roger's accident. Eva then wins a competition and a $30,000 purse. Then Annemarie gets on Hurrah and rides him around without tack completely and jumps him in front of Dan. The end.

So, yeah, I don't know exactly what the point was here other than an urge to continue with established characters. I get this urge, I really do. I just don't see much of a plot.

  • The Eugenie situation with the pony fizzles and completely dies halfway through the book. I fail to see why this was included or necessary to the story besides the fact that it gives us and Annemarie the opportunity to discover that she would take in an abused/orphaned child. This doesn't need to be said.
  • If Eva is a riding princess mary sue, then her horse is the equine mary sue to end all equine mary sues. The horse in question is a blue roan Nokota named Smokey Joe. He is special because he is full-blooded Nokota, he is only seven, he only lets "special" people ride him, even the most advanced of riders cannot ride him if he doesn't approve them, and despite the little training he's received considering only "special" people can ride him, he is ridiculously talented and can perform one tempi changes or something. And he can jump huge spreads. And he's like every Thoroughbred horse combined. Honestly, you can't get more mary sue than this. If I thought Annemarie's two brindled Hanoverians was special in Riding Lessons, Eva's blue roan Nokota wonder horse makes Harry and Hurrah seem plain.
  • The one saving grace in this book is that eventually people stop giving Eva all the slack she demands. Eva is annoying as hell, and when Annemarie starts to blatantly tell her to shut up I was cheering for her on the sidelines.
All in all, I didn't like it as much as Riding Lessons. For the obvious reason that I don't think its existence is justified. Annemarie and Eva are barely tolerable, made so only because Annemarie's mother and Dan seem to balance it out. The last few pages I did like, mainly because Sara Gruen went back to making jumping and riding seem interesting, rather than mechanical and dull. Unfortunately I slipped into boredom during some of the cross country and jumping scenes during the novel, so I can't give this book a pass here.

So that's all. If Sara Gruen writes another horse book, I desperately implore her to find a new cast to play with. I think Annemarie has run her course.


Linda Shantz said...

Hear, hear!!!!!!

Genevieve said...

You know, I actually liked Flying Changes better than Riding Lessons? It had some improbable turns, but I liked the focus on Eva. Also, just wanted to point out that she's not a Mary Sue Freak with one year of formal training- in the first book, they point out that Eva's been taking formal lessons since she was a kid, but Roger's always the one that watches her show because Annmarie can't watch. Her training just intensified when she went to live full time at her grandparents' training barn, which makes sense too.

But I totally agree that this needs to be the last book about these characters