This is one of those books that I just can’t make up my mind about. I think I liked it, but there were times while reading where I wondered where it was going.
The novel is mainly told through the point of view of Ginger, a forty odd year old recovering alcoholic, and Velvet, eleven years old at the start of the novel. Ginger lives in upstate New York with her husband Paul. A second marriage for him, she feels like an outsider in a community that still includes his ex-wife and daughter. Ginger herself has been unable to have children. Paul refuses to consider adoption, but eventually agrees to a middle ground and suggests that they host an inner-city kid for a couple of weeks in the summer. That kid is Velvet. The story seems inevitable: Ginger will become too involved. And that is sort of what happens, though there are depths to this story that make it more than a one note tale.
The mare of the title is a horse at the barn near Ginger’s house. She takes Velvet there for horse riding lessons and it turns out that the girl has talent. The mare, Fugly Girl (renamed Fierce Girl by Velvet), has been abused and is volatile, but over time Velvet learns how to earn her trust. Again, a bit of a cheesy metaphor, but I think Gaitskill just about gets away with it. Ginger goes against Velvet’s mother’s wishes and lets Velvet ride even when her mother says that it’s too dangerous, even paying out ridiculous amounts of money for bareback riding lessons, which she hides from Paul. I wanted more to come from this – Ginger is basically obsessed by the midpoint of the book and willing to do anything to help Velvet, trying to convince her mother to move the family out of Brooklyn, getting her school teachers to call with updates, but there are never any consequences to her ongoing deceptions.
Ginger and Velvet narrate alternating chapters, chapters which are sometimes as short as a paragraph, barely ever longer than three or four pages. Occasionally another voice comes in, Paul, or Velvet’s mother Silvia, but rarely. I was surprised to find that this technique worked for me. As a reader, it was useful to get two sides of an argument. Velvet often lied to others but would be more honest in her own narration. It was also a neat trick at times when events were occurring outside of their sphere, meaning that we could jump into other locations and see through someone else’s eyes.
On to the characters themselves. I found Ginger a little irritating and I struggled to see her and Paul as a real couple. They were always on opposite sides, and although his few chapters did help to see that there had been love there once, I wondered how it had faded so quickly when they hadn’t been married for that long. Velvet was a more interesting character, and had real development as she grew from the young eleven year old at the beginning, to a streetwise thirteen year old. The scenes between her and Silvia were devastating, Silvia just wanting her daughter to not make the same mistakes but seemingly unable to explain herself. At times this also became frustrating. Because Silvia doesn’t speak English I could understand the gap between her and Ginger but I didn’t get why she couldn’t just speak to her own kid. She seemed unable to have a conversation with Velvet that didn’t involve shouting, and towards the end that just seemed odd.
This was a good enough book but I wanted the stakes to be higher. I feel like Gaitskill offered us a glimpse of disaster (and the characters all seemed to be aiming straight for it) but then closed the door as though she thought we couldn’t handle it.