Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley, Alfred A Knopf, 2000, 561 pp
Jane Smiley's novel about horse racing is one of the best books I have read this summer. It was loaned to me by my sister-in-law, a horse woman herself and daughter of a horse woman. Jane Smiley owns a race horse or two and clearly knows plenty about the subject. A big part of the book's success is the way she makes the horses characters in the story as much as she does the humans.
I knew nothing about the world of horse racing, except that people like to go to the races and bet money. I learned more than I knew there was to know about the individuals who own race horses (usually wealthy), the ones who train them (often fanatical), the jockeys, and the major races of each year along with their locations and prizes. Smiley provides a list of characters and horses but not a glossary, so I kept my iPhone handy and the terminology is easy to find on the web.
For the most part, reading the book was a perfectly painless way to learn because the facts are couched in the stories of individuals, including their dreams, their interpersonal troubles, the highs and lows of the racing life, and the many, various ways that these persons relate to horses.
Smiley takes on the big issues and questions of live, love, business, ethics, etc. Her novel is sprawling and long and rich with emotion. I always enjoy her fiction because of the non-judgmental approach she takes to human foibles; the heady brew of dry humor plus pathos by which she makes us know that often the bad guy wins and the nice people lose. In this one, almost every character, human or horse, gets what he or she wants in one way or another, deserved or not.
It is a long book, cleverly plotted with intertwining destinies, and I never wanted it to be over. I will probably not ride a horse again in my life and, unless someone invited me along, I would not attend a race, even though the Santa Anita track is just down the freeway. But I don't think I will ever forget the animals or the humans, so well did she bring them to life. Now I understand completely how people can love horses so much.
(Horse Heaven is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)