Review: Riding Lessons, by Sara Gruen

Riding Lessons
by Sara Gruen
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Water for Elephants was one of the best books I’d ever read, so when I was in the Mexico City airport last week with 500 pesos and an extra ninety minutes before my flight – and nothing to read – I took a chance and got Sara Gruen’s earlier book Riding Lessons.

I was expecting plain prose that nevertheless forms incredibly vivid imagery, but I was not expecting a novel that was essentially a conventional romance, albeit one dressed up for dressage and including an angst-ridden mother-daughter relationship. What is it about everyone writing snotty teenagers into their work lately?

Simplified, the plot seems almost cliche: Annemarie has a tragic accident while competing in an equestrian event, turns her back on all things equine, marries a man she doesn’t really love, and ends up divorced with a snotty teenaged daughter. She moves back home to the family farm (and riding academy) where she makes her peace with her estranged mother and dying father, strikes up a romance with the local vet, whom she knew as a much younger woman, and yes, eventually does save the farm and live to tell about it.

Of course, there’s a second love affair in the tale as well: that of Annemarie and her horse, Highland Harry, who died in the tragic accident, and the new horse, troubled and injured, she adopts from the vet’s rescue, and insists is Harry’s long-lost brother.

Fans of romance and horses will enjoy this book, and I must admit, for a cliche it was still an enjoyable read, but I’m glad Gruen’s storytelling has evolved since this was originally published.

Goes well with: Strong coffee, worn jeans, and country-western music. Even if it does take place in New Hampshire.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants was recommended to me several years ago when it first came out, but for some reason it didn’t appeal to me at the time, or I passed it over for some other reason. A couple of weekends ago, we were at the library, and I noticed it. In fact, the library we visited was so depressing, that it was one of only three books I bothered to check out.

I finished it tonight, having chosen to savor it and make it last, because once I started reading it, and realized it was about the circus, I was hooked.

This novel is both a behind-the-scenes look at traveling circuses in the 1930s and a love-letter to the art form. Told in flashbacks by the main character, Jacob, who used to be a vet “on a show,” we glimpse the dirtier aspects of circus life, including the often brutal treatment of workers, performers, and animals, the way acts were formed, and the competition between different circuses.

I’ve been telling my husband I want to see the circus for my birthday (Ringling Bros. will be in town), and the fact that this book fell into my lap a month before that event seems to be a favorable sign.

Goes well with caramel corn.