We gave it an A-
Mary Gaitskill is such a fierce observer of brutality that one Amazon reviewer famously called her “the Jane Austen of sickos,” and the title stuck. Though she earned a National Book Award nod for 2005’s Veronica, which followed the painful relationship between an ex-model and an AIDS patient, she’s best known for penning the S&M story that was adapted for the 2002 movie Secretary, in which a woman enjoys getting spanked by her boss. So it’s surprising that Gaitskill’s new novel was inspired by National Velvet, that heartwarming tale of a girl, her beloved horse, and the race they win against all odds. Even reading the plot of The Mare—which follows Velvet, an 11-year-old Dominican kid from Brooklyn, and Ginger, a 47-year-old white artist who invites Velvet to go riding upstate through the Fresh Air Fund—you might expect the most depressing ending. Uh-oh, someone’s gonna beat that horse dead.
But this is a different book for Gaitskill, one that’s remarkably tender, though thankfully not sentimental. Switching perspectives between Velvet and Ginger (and occasionally Velvet’s mother and other characters) over several years, the novel explores Velvet and Ginger’s attempts to bridge the racial and socioeconomic divide between them, questioning whether it’s possible for a privileged country lady and an inner-city kid to really make a difference in each other’s lives. The voices ring true with a few exceptions (would a Dominican teen really describe a classmate’s skin as “café au lait”?), allowing Ginger’s and Velvet’s biases to come through honestly, so that neither character has to serve as an example for her race or class. And the love story between Velvet and her mare is more than just an excuse to explore themes of nature versus nurture or rational thought versus animal instinct. It’s also a detailed portrait of the nonstop work it takes to care for a horse, capturing the finer details of training, grooming, and mucking the stalls.
Of course, caring for a child can also be thankless work, and the parallels between raising horses and teenagers are sometimes too neat. (The Mare is a play on mère, or mother.) But the novel is still a deeply affecting tribute to basic human connection. As it turns out, the ending is neither triumphant nor depressing—it’s a truthful meditation on the limits of birth motherhood, surrogate motherhood, and mothering yourself. A–