by Kim Ablon Whitney
Sometimes Francie Martinez feels like she's hovering between two worlds. Her father is Mexican, and her mother -- although she doesn't really count -- is American. Francie spends hours mucking stalls with the other Mexican grooms, but when she mounts her horse, Tobey, she is a determined, talented rider, just like any of the other girls at West Hills. At school, she's known as "the horse girl," but in the ring (and to Rob, one of the best trainers in the country), she's not the girl who wins -- Tara is.You know, horse books seem to have fashioned a bad reputation for themselves. They're formulaic, and if you read this blog on any sort of regular basis the formula has probably slapped you in the face pretty much every day you've read it: Amazing girl or boy. Amazing horse. Snobby antagonist. Sudden drama. Win win win! It just goes around and around like a vicious cycle of ickiness. This is probably why I can get so, um, vitriolic here. Someone write something new. It's all I'm really asking.
Now Francie is ready to secure a place for herself in a world where she knows she belongs. It's always been her dream to win the Maclay Finals in New York City, and this year -- her last year -- she has to win. Francie can't imagine her life without horses; she's serious about riding, and this is her final chance to prove it to Rob (who is so busy praising Tara that he barely notices her), to her father (who has been collecting college brochures for the past six months), and to Tara (who's sure she's going to win). And then there's the new boy, Colby, who is becoming a distraction just when Francie needs to focus more than ever.
In this deftly told coming-of-age story by the author of the critically acclaimed See You Down the Road, Francie faces more than the ring as she tries to figure out what kind of rider -- and person -- she wants to be.
It's not surprising that horse books have a hard road to hoe when it comes to being taken seriously. Really, it's to the point where I think most people write horse books off as being general wish fulfillment fantasies aimed toward the female gender. People don't take this seriously, and that's fine really, because occasionally books like The Perfect Distance come along and blow me away.
Francie Martinez is a groom at West Hills, one of the best places to train in the country. She's also a rider, but the distinction is her father is the West Hills barn manager, with absolutely no money to pay for the kind of training one needs to make it to the Maclay Finals and onward to Grand Prix. Francie is good, but she's not as good as Tara, the great West Hills hope for their trainer, Rob. Rob is the equestrian version of God, and Francie spends most of her lessons scrambling for his attention the way he lavishes it on Tara.
It's pretty apparent straight off that Francie isn't exactly comfortable in her skin. Literally and figuratively. She's half Mexican, and she bluntly points out that there are no Hispanic riders in America. To make matters worse, there's the obvious distinction between groom and rider. Francie isn't a working student, and whenever she tries to break out of her confines to interact with Colby (who is gorgeous and funny and rich and a good rider in his own right) her father slaps her down because he's been there and done that with her nonexistent mother, and look where that wound up. She's having a hard time balancing being both groom and rider, and people like Tara make the distinction obvious whenever they can.
Then there's school. Francie is a public school kid, whereas the other kids at West Hills are either privately tutored (her best friend, Katie, and Colby) or they dropped out to focus on riding (Tara). But even at school, Francie has a hard time fitting in. She's always focused on riding and school work, therefore she's not around, leaving her very existence mostly a mystery to the rest of the local kids. This leaves Francie as eager to please, and a basket case when she's put on the spot. It's shocking she can handle the ordeals of a normal day, much less the pressures of a show.
Despite these things, it's obvious that Francie is a good rider, and she's justified in dreaming of beating Tara in the Maclay Finals. But the book is more than this. Unlike just about every other book involving girls, horses, show jumping, and the mention of Olympic dreams, it doesn't end like you expect, and it manages to hit a completely different note than the scores of other books that have meagerly tried and miserably failed at the same point. It makes the kind of note that doesn't blatantly say: it doesn't matter what personal growth this character makes because she's going to win anyway because she's irritatingly perfect and you can be too!
And that...that's all I really want, folks.
So you've obviously figured out by now that I'm not going to recap this whole book and I'm not going to really give up the ending or much of the plot. All I can say at this point is to go find it and read it. You'll be happy you did.