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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
To horse racing and baseball fans alike, spring is the season to get reacquainted with their heroes; it is the time to grab a scorecard, place a few bets, and head to the nearest dusty expanse of grass. Most of all, it's the time to dream, because on a baseball diamond or a horse track anything is possible. Judging by her magnificent new novel, Horse Heaven, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley understands this fact. With utter authority and aplomb, her seventh novel opens up the world of horse racing as never before; it takes us on a circuit from Del Mar to Saratoga and back again, bringing to life the owners, the trainers, and (most humorously) the horses themselves. While Horse Heaven is likely to be the definitive novel about horse racing, it is more than just a well-researched sojourn in this nervy world. It is a meditation on how we gamble at life's racetrack, wagering most cautiously when that bet is for happiness.
To tell this epic tale (it has nearly three dozen characters), Smiley employs an unusual narrative strategy: She sets the dramas of her human characters against the backdrop of those of her horses. We meet and get to know every horse in an intimate way, from Justabob, an imperious stallion with anger management issues, to Epic Steam, an ornery black stud with a heart the size of a Volkswagen. They are affectionate when loved, truculent when provoked, and mournful when they lose a friend on the road to the big leagues. With their steaming, muscled flanks and armies of helpers, these horses know they're important. But all they really want is a scratch behind the ear, plenty of hay, and maybe a nicker and a nuzzle or two. The same could be said for their attendants.
Though they desire the same thing as their thoroughbreds -- to win a little, and to be loved more -- Smiley's human cast are a hapless lot. There's the tycoon Al Maybrick, who has his own anger management issues and a drinking habit he barely keeps in check. Al and his trophy wife, Rosalind, take up horses as a hobby, but soon the horses become a repository for the hopes Al used to have for his marriage. Indeed, Al goes to the track to escape the fact that he and his wife don't relate anymore, while Rosalind goes shopping for expensive tchotchkes. But it's not just the owners who throw their dreams into horses. Married for 25 years to an agoraphobic woman, Al's trainer, Dick Winterson, spends most of his time at the track because he finds his horses' expectations easier to live up to than those of his wife. When he and Rosalind meet up, Winterson realizes that he's been missing something essential in his life away from the stalls.
While Smiley's characters differ in their particular domestic maladies, they are united in their love of horses. But until they encounter each other in the right way, they can't achieve the happiness they continually seek on the track. Smiley does a wonderful job of weaving together these two themes -- horses and happiness -- showing us that, as in horse racing, there is no true secret to happiness. As one avid gambler says, "It's a mystery that can't be plumbed by the form, by the theories, by any known science and it happens every day." But is winning -- or happiness, for that matter -- worth striving for? Tossing in the towel, another of Smiley's characters muses, "Wasn't the lesson of racing that there was no meaning, no pattern, nothing except chaos daily engaged with?" Winning at horses and winning at marriage, one concludes, are patterns of organizing chaos within ourselves.
As in her previous novels A Thousand Acres, Moo, and The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, Jane Smiley strikes a sublime balance between levity and gravity in Horse Heaven, making us laugh one moment and ponder where we should place our heaviest wagers during the next. Yes, Jane Smiley is out of the gate once again, leading the field of contemporary novelists with long, effortless strides. And thanks to Horse Heaven, we now know why the grass on a horse track oval appears so hopefully green. (John Freeman)