Oct 1, 2008

This is a horse story on valium.

Riding Lessons
by Sara Gruen
Published: 2004

I will admit that I steered clear of this book for a long time. Basically since it was published. I remember finding it repeatedly in book stores and repeatedly putting it back on the shelf, I suppose mainly because I was convinced it was nothing more than a romance novel masquerading as "serious" fiction, whatever that is.

Earlier this year I read Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen's third novel. It has horses in it (hell, it's about the circus...of course it has horses in it) but not to the extent that I would read it for this blog. I flew through that one in just under a day and loved it, despite what I thought was an unfortunately weird and unrealistic ending. I'd still recommend it, so I started to eye her earlier books with less reluctance. And then Riding Lessons and Flying Changes were requested for the blog, and that just worked out for me. So thank you, whoever it was that requested these books. I finally convinced myself to read them, all thanks to you.

As a world-class equestrienne and Olympic contender, Annemarie Zimmer lived for the thrill of flight atop a strong, graceful animal. Then, at eighteen, a tragic accident destroyed her riding career and Harry, her beloved and distinctively marked horse.

Now, twenty years later, Annemarie is coming home to her dying father’s New Hampshire horse farm. Jobless and abandoned, she is bringing her troubled teenaged daughter to this place of pain and memory, where ghosts of an unresolved youth still haunt the fields and stables—and where hope lives in the eyes of the handsome, gentle veterinarian Annemarie loved as a girl, and in the seductive allure of a trainer with a magic touch.

But everything will change once again with one glimpse of a red-and-white-striped gelding startlingly familiar to the one Annemarie lost in another lifetime. And an obsession is born that could shatter her fragile world…
There you have it, guys. Tragedy, drama, life changes, and a brindled horse. What more do you want? Well? I should mention that this is a debut novel, which seems to be an easy way to explain any insanity, should there be any. Lucky for us there is little insanity that isn't intentional in this book, because as you can imagine with that summary, there will be plenty of hysterics to go through.

Well, anyway. Annemarie is our main character. She's 38, lives in Minneapolis, has a 15-year-old daughter named Eva, works as a technical writer/editor/something like that, and is married to Roger, a lawyer. Looking at her now, you'd never know she was a Grand Prix rider when she was 18, but all of that ended when her horse crumpled during competition and sent both of them head first into the dirt. The horse, a chestnut brindled Hanoverian named Harry, is destroyed and Annemarie only wishes she could have been put down right along with him. Instead she suffers near catastrophic injuries and somehow manages to fully recover. By the time she's walking again, she wants nothing to do with horses and, in order to assure herself that she'll never get on a horse again, she marries Roger at 19 and runs off to Minnesota.

These first few chapters were exceedingly well done, actually. Sara Gruen takes you through the competition with Anniemare and Harry, making show jumping actually seem interesting to me. So this has become my test to see if a book passes muster: if it makes a repetitive motion I've read about countless times feel breathtaking, like I'm reading the same stuff for the first time, the book is worthwhile. Sara Gruen manages this in the first chapter. So I guess I could shut this review down now. But I won't. I have other things to get to, because it's not all sunshine and roses here, guys.

After these initial chapters, we get to Annemarie's life at present. Her 38-year-old self is about ready to take another fall, which happens in the form of 1) getting laid off and 2) her husband telling her that it's over. He has a 23-year-old girl he'd really like to have sex with more than her. This is his plan. No one can sway him from his plan, which is good because Annemarie does the equivalent of a shrug. More or less. She just calls up her mom to tell her she's coming home, but her mom just informs her that her father has ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease. The world has officially ended. Annemarie goes home to face the family she basically ran away from twenty years ago, dragging her petulant teenager along with her.

Because this is in the first person, we get a lot of Annemarie's internal angsting over all of this. She's got issues with everything, from her memories of her father being a drill sergeant forcing her to ride until she found Harry and rode because she loved Harry, to her mother's disapproval over twenty years, to her daughter testing every boundary a teenager can test, to the guy (Dan) she loved more than Roger but left because her parents actually liked him (the horror), to the divorce papers she filed, to her failed marriage...you name it, Annemarie is angsting over it. Essentially.

While she's there, Annemarie decides to take up managing the family's barn. It's a high class barn, filled with high class horses that I'm sure plenty of high class people are riding and paying plenty to keep in high class conditions. They have a French trainer named Jean-Claude, for Christ's sake. Annemarie figures this managing thing shouldn't be very hard, so she takes up the reins and takes the barn for a test drive. We'll see how that turns out a little later.

As it happens, Dan is still around. He's a vet, Annemarie's parents are still in love with him, and he runs a rescue somewhere nearby. Eva starts to volunteer for him, although that's sort of a tenuous situation because Eva is experiencing her raging teenage hormone years right now. Anyway, Dan recently picked up a horse at auction, and it's a chestnut brindled Hanoverian with one eye. Turns out Harry has a full brother, you guys. His name was Highland Hurrah, and Annemarie's parents considered buying him for her had she not run off and gotten married. This horse is now 17, and was also a Grand Prix jumper with someone named Ian. Only he was supposed to have died in a fire. Annemarie is flummoxed. Flummoxed! Or, well, she cries a lot. Same thing. She insists on adopting the brindled horse, and then she becomes obsessed with finding out everything she can about Highland Hurrah. To the point that she insists that Dan get this old scanner that could read any old chip that Hurrah might have had. He does this and calls it in before Annemarie can change her mind, resulting in hysterics because DAMN IT she didn't specifically tell him to call it in and he SHOULD HAVE ANTICIPATED her insane change of mind! How inconsiderate of him!

I should mention that by this point they're sort of casually dating. Yeah...not a good idea to go off on the guy when he's trying to be helpful, Annemarie. Anyway, turns out the brindled horse is actually Highland Hurrah. They punch walls in anger and that's that. Only this is where Annemarie flies off the deep end. She's not a good manager. Like, at all. Instead of managing she's been spending every waking minute surfing the internet looking for pictures of Highland Hurrah so she can compare him to her brindled horse, becoming further convinced her horse is Hurrah, which leads to this wall hitting episode. And it also leads to her accidentally telling off a high class boarder, who hauls her six high class horses out of there, the farm runs out of hay and shavings (nicely done, Annemarie), she has to buy more expensive hay and shavings to make up for her internet obsession, and they run out of money. Literally. All the paychecks bounce. Then she fires one of the stable hands for getting flirty with Eva and for being Mexican, leading to all of his stable hand cousins quitting. She's on a serious roll.

While this is happening, she's also very busy losing it. Because it's been confirmed that the horse is Highland Hurrah she comes up with a plan to dye all of Hurrah's white stripes. She actually does this. Then she's off thinking rapid fire of ways to get the horse off the farm, and before she can really do this her dad dies. Only he doesn't just die. Oh no. Her parents have been cruising around to different doctors, gathering up all this phenobarbital something or another so they can give him one massive dose...taking him 18 hours to die. While Annemarie has been off acting like a loon, her father has been slowly committing assisted suicide. How's that for closure, Annemarie?

The police come. Everyone gives their statements, and then they discover that Eva has run away. The police come again. Eva turns up in Minneapolis because at this point she'd rather be with Roger, and seeing as how Annemarie has very quickly lost it, I don't blame her. Because I guess that Minnesota requires a court hearing to get divorced, Annemarie has to go back there anyway to get officially divorced, and she's supposedly going to pick her up then. She goes to Minnesota, gets divorced, gets drunk, and Roger tells her he always loved her more. That asshole. Eva still won't come home with her, so she drives back and has a series of epiphanies about her life and so forth. Essentially, she stops being so insane.

Although this is short lived because when she gets home there's a trailer by the barn. Horse thieves are after Hurrah, of course, because this Ian guy is a prat. Annemarie calls 911 and then she and Jean-Claude more or less save the day by kicking ass and taking names. The police come again. For a while Annemarie is suspected of...doing something illegal, but not that anyone really comes to any conclusions there. The police cart Hurrah off to New Mexico, where the trial for Ian will be held, Eva comes home to see the funeral, she inexplicably stays, Jean-Claude decides to leave, but not before almost having sex with Annemarie in a stall for no reason that she initiates and stops, Anniemarie and her mother, who will not be going to jail, I guess, decide to collectively get over it, and then Annemarie and Dan have sex. Yay!

So things finally settle down. Annemarie sells her house in Minneapolis, using the extra money to pay for the damage her irresponsibility wrought on the barn. She becomes the barn's instructor, doing a much better job at that than at management. Eva adopts a filly from Dan's rescue, I guess is still seeing the stable hand boy because he's got a scholarship (therefore he can date her, despite being Mexican or something), and Dan goes out to New Mexico and brings back Hurrah from yet another auction. It ends well. Annemarie finally rides Hurrah, getting over twenty years of trauma and overblown angst.

  • I expected more to be said between Annemarie and her father. Instead she spends most of the book dodging him, and then he commits suicide, so I'm not sure how to feel about this. After he's dead, she sort of gets some things off her chest to her mother, but it's not the same, especially considering she harbors such resentment toward being forced to ride.
  • The potential Jean-Claude/Annemarie sex. Comes out of nowhere, really has no purpose, and left me pretty damn confused.
  • Hurrah's transformation. Hurrah is initially a very damaged horse, with probably some severe psychological trauma. Annemarie's method of getting through to him is just sticking him in a pasture by himself and rolling apples toward him for weeks on end. Right when she's starting to lose it after neglecting to order hay and realizing the barn could possibly be foreclosed on, Hurrah does a 180. Conveniently enough. After that, he's basically a kitten.
  • The whole Hurrah plot. Ian Whatshisname set up an accident to make it look like Hurrah had died so he could claim over a million dollars in insurance. Dan mentions it's impossible for this horse to be Hurrah because any insurance agency would have to see the body for a claim to be valid. Instead of killing Hurrah, Ian kills another horse and has its body burned beyond recognition in order to get the claim. So...why not just kill Hurrah? What is the point in keeping him alive, other than it can come back to bite him on the ass? Here, I guess we can explain this off as a debut mistake, but it's a pretty major one. Anyone with enough gall to try to defraud an insurance agency should have enough gall to actually kill the horse in question.
  • Annemarie...is not exactly likable. I started off the book liking her, but by the point where she was panicking because she hadn't ordered hay and bedding for weeks on end she started losing massive amounts of points with me. Not to mention I'm not sure how feasible it is to blame surfing the internet because you're obsessed with finding pictures of your horse. And this is how it goes for most of the rest of the book. She wants things and freaks out after she gets them. She mainly overreacts to everything, seems to really actually be racist (I can't explain her freak out when she tries to get her stable hands to come back, resulting in her peeling out of a predominantly Mexican neighborhood because Mexican men are walking up to her car), shirks off responsibility...she's a mess. I think she manages to pull herself back together at the end of the book. Well enough that I started to like her again, but by three quarters through you sort of wish someone would knock her unconscious and take over the story for her.
So, yeah, it's got some problems. I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to think of the sequel, especially given the fact that Annemarie is back as the main character in Flying Changes. It's next on my list, so I'll see how it goes. Otherwise, I still recommend Riding Lessons. It's better than I thought it would be, but it's definitely not in the same league as Water For Elephants. I guess that means Sara Gruen is growing as a writer. Good on you, Sara.


Molly said...

I'm really curious to read this now. Annemarie sounds like a friend of mine - she complains about having the things she complained about not having.

I never knew that horses could be brindle! Way cool.

Mara said...

Annemarie is definitely a hard character to really grasp. I'm also inclined to believe she's a bit of a self-insert, but not so bad that she detracts from the story.

Ashley said...

I absolutely LOVED this book!! I read it before I stumbled on your blog. I reccomend it to anyone and everyone. Maybe I'm so partial to it because I live on a farm and feel like I really connect with my animals just as this book demonstrates.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this book..... but I wouldn't suggest it for the young bright kid who loves horses and to read..... no appropriate. But written with compassion and really makes you use your brain in some situations.

Joanna said...

This book is amazing! I've read a ton of books but so far this is beyond my favorite! I can't wait to read "Flying Changes"!!!!