Dec 29, 2008

It's another book I must decline ripping to shreds.

The Perfect Distance: A Novel
by Kim Ablon Whitney
Published: 2005
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.

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.
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.

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.


Molly said...

This sounds like a good read. Honestly, I love any book that hits on any of the following:

NO GODDAMN BLUE RIBBON, and preferably not a "consolation" second place ribbon that's considered eh, okay. Basically, a realistic attitude towards showing - only one person can win and it may not be you, so suck it up and be glad you pinned at all, or stay out of the ring entirely. See: Everyday Friends, the Silver Creek Riders series. Love them for that.

The main character does not have NATURAL TALENT COMING OUT THE ASS. They work for their abilities and are sometimes just not the best in the class no matter how much they work at it. This is however nullified when the protag would totally be the best ever if they wre able to have all the training opportunities as the other kids, which leads me to:

The protagonist is not OMG POOR (which grates because quite honestly, if you can afford to keep a horse and take lessons at all? You're probably not poor, you're just LESS RICH than your friends.) and are not unable to have the massive amounts of training as the bitchy antagonist. Basically, I like it when everyone is in more or less the same position in terms of how much instruction they can have/how much time they can spend at the barn. Whether or not they take advantage of it, I don't care. (The Saddle Club at least got that right - Veronica was insanely rich but that had little to do with what she actually did or didn't do at the barn, except for lending her a horrible sense of entitlement and having her do it in nicer clothes. She didn't have extra instruction, and she was as good a rider as Carole, she just didn't like horses all that much.)

The antagonist is bitchy for an actual reason, preferably with some actual dimension to the character. Better still if they're good riders who win based on merit and actually take care of their horses. (Bonnie Bryant, you can't see me, but I'm giving you the finger right now.)

Moral ambiguity: like I said, the antagonist has dimension. I also like for the protagonist to not be preternaturally GOOD and KIND and WONDERFUL. They're almost always teen girls. Let them have their catfights with friends that blow over in five seconds. Let them whine and pout occasionally while still being generally nice, decent kids. Realistic teen behavior, basically. Unfortunately, it's hard to find that in ANY book, let alone horse books.

Rich people are nice, normal people who might have nicer things than you. Poor people are actually capable of being assholes and are not ennobled by not having money. Again, hard to find in any teen lit, let alone horse books.

Seriously, any one of these things makes it an awesome horse book for me, and it sounds like I get at least some of that here! I hope my library has it.

Molly said...

So I read this book, finally, thank you ny public library.

It pretty much did end like I expected, but that was because I recognized that it was going to give us a GOOD ending, not the usual one.

Really fucking good book. You weren't kidding. Good character development - really, I'd rather my hypothetical daughters look to someone like Francie than Christina, Mel,'s also nice to have the moral of the story NOT be "you'll be happy once you achieve perfection!"

A few cliche moments with the teen melodrama (and Francie could be a snot), and I could've done without the romance aspect because it felt unnecessary to me, but it wasn't problematic.

I was honestly completely shocked with the last turn about Rob's character. I'm not sure how much I should say, since for once this is a book i don't want to spoil, That gutted me.

Also good: they managed to avoid one thing I really hate. There was no "Francie would be better than Tara if she could drop out of school and spend hours at the barn too!" AND I loved that Tara wasn't loaded.

I feel like I ought to write the author and thank her profusely for writing one of the few non-formulaic horse books in history.

Mara said...

I'm glad you liked it! The interaction between Rob and just about everyone always felt like a punch to the stomach, so I understand what you mean about how that plays out. The plot in regards to him is definitely above and beyond all horse books I've ever read, especially when it comes down to his treatment of Francie. I loved it.

The romance, you know, I like. Mainly because it's low key and manages to treat the characters like actual teenagers that are interested in other things besides holding hands and not understanding their reaction to this concept. And it helped Francie ultimately grow into herself more.

I also was struck with the urge to write her a long e-mail about how she gave me back my faith in horse books. I can only hope she's got another idea for one lurking somewhere.

Bookworm said...

Looks so good, equitation is what I do and many of the other horsey books out there kind of breeze past all the competition, etc.