The Mare

By Mary Gaitskill

(Knopf Doubleday, $26.95, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

Mary Gaitskill, who once sold flowers on the street in San Francisco and for a time supported herself as a sex worker, is now an acclaimed American novelist, essayist and short story writer who often explores kinky relationships in work that goes far beyond the cheaply titillating. She is the author of the story collections Bad Behavior, Because They Wanted T , which was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award, and Don’t Cry, and the novels Veronica , which was nominated for a National Book Award, and Two Girls, Fat and Thin. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Her story, Secretary, which appeared in Bad Behavior, is about a sadomasochistic boss and worker relationship, became a 2002 movie with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

What is this book about?

A middle-aged couple in New York State entwine their lives with an 11-year-old girl from the Dominican Republic via Brooklyn, through a children’s charity. Velveteen Vargas, known as Velvet (in a nod to the classic book and film National Velvet), has a domineering, cold-hearted mother, but over several years, she develops a warm relationship with Ginger, her benefactor who is a recovering alcoholic and a failed artist, despite Ginger’s husband’s doubts about yanking a city kid out of her milieu and exposing her to a life she may not be able to sustain. Even more important,Velvet comes to love and bond with an abused mare known as Fugly Girl, and that relationship changes everything for the main characters. The story has some real life parallels: Gaitskill and her then-husband hosted a pair of Dominican-American siblings with an abusive mother through the Fresh Air Fund and grew close with them, although the relationship fell apart. The book explores how love can be affected by differences in race and socioeconomic class.

Why you’ll like it:

Gaitskill writes with unflinching honesty and lyrical grace, and in this book she convincingly speaks in the voice of a child. Her work is both disturbing and compelling, and she is not afraid to explore areas of human behavior and emotion that might frighten off a lesser writer.

In an interview with BOMB magazine, she said she began writing at age 18 because she was ‘”indignant about things—it was the typical teenage sense of ‘things are wrong in the world and I must say something.” ‘

A New York Times story about Gaitskill describes her work this way: “[It’s] so acutely observant of human behavior that it’s frequently described in the language of violation: a vivisection, a dental drill, a flogging. There is very rough sex in her books, and characters who binge eat and rip out their hair. But the real danger is elsewhere: It’s in glances and gestures and sudden silences, in craving contact and being rebuffed. ‘‘I wanted to communicate and connect,’’ Gaitskill said when I asked why she became a writer. ‘‘

What others are saying:

“The Mare is a raw, beautiful story about love and mutual delusion, in which the fierce erotics of mother love and romantic love and even horse fever are swirled together,” says Maureen Corrigan’s Best Books of 2015 on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Velvet Vargas, the abused, underprivileged daughter of unstable Silvia, and Ginger, a fortysomething, upper-middle-class recovering alcoholic, are the heart of this multi-voiced saga of damaged people scrambling to survive against enormous odds. When Ginger and husband Paul take in 11-year-old Velvet for a summer stint with the Fresh Air Fund in upstate New York, this initial visit segues into frequent visits over the years. Paul is skeptical about this social experiment; Ginger is obsessed with the girl’s welfare every time she returns to Brooklyn. When they arrange for Velvet to take riding lessons at a nearby horse farm, Velvet’s rare equine intuition ups the tension. Her jealous, hateful mother resists all efforts to nurture the very gifts that may save Velvet’s soul, while Ginger oversteps one boundary after another to keep Velvet safe while healing the dark abyss of her own psyche. VERDICT Gaitskill spares no one in this brutally honest story of poverty, bigotry, the secret life of adolescents looking for love and acceptance in all the wrong places, and parental and marital dysfunction. The major and minor voices narrating this brilliant tapestry are wondrously original, poignant, and, despite all, not without hope.”

Kirkus’s starred review says: “A young Dominican girl from the mean streets of Brooklyn forges a relationship with a white woman living in a bucolic upstate town and learns to love horses and respect herself. Eleven-year-old Velvet has a soft name, but there’s nothing even remotely plush about her life in a rough part of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Abused (mostly, but not only, verbally) by her mother, a tough immigrant, Velvet has little to call her own (she keeps her treasured objects—a shell, a dried sea horse, a broken keychain doll—in an old cotton-ball box in the back of a closet) and few friends, almost no one she can trust. Velvet’s mother clearly prefers her 6-year-old son, Dante, singing him to sleep at night with her back to Velvet in the family’s shared bed. Instead of comfort and cuddles, Velvet gets the message that she’s “no good”—not that it’s really her fault; it’s just that her blood is bad. While Velvet craves her mother’s love and attention, Ginger, a 47-year-old sometime artist recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse, an abusive relationship, and the death of her troubled sister, finds herself yearning for a child. Now living a comfortable life in upstate New York with Paul, her college-professor husband, Ginger has decided to “test the waters” of adoption by hosting a Fresh Air Fund kid for a couple of weeks, a commitment that stretches far longer and deeper. That’s how Velvet and Ginger meet, and it’s also how Velvet meets a mistrustful and mistreated horse at the stable next door to Ginger’s house, the horse the others call “Fugly Girl” and she renames “Fiery Girl,” whom she will tame and train, and who will do the same for her. Alternating primarily between Velvet’s and Ginger’s perspectives, with occasional observations from other characters, National Book Award finalist Gaitskill takes a premise that could have been preachy, sentimental, or simplistic—juxtaposing urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old, brown and white—and makes it candid and emotionally complex, spare, real, and deeply affecting. Gaitskill explores the complexities of love … to bring us a novel that gallops along like a bracing bareback ride on a powerful thoroughbred.”

“The Mare is indebted, in its narrative strategy, to As I Lay Dying, another novel that employs a host of recurring narrators to get at the tangled intricacies of family life. There is a certain loom-like effect at work in both books, a warp-and-woof texture, visible only to the reader, produced by the interwoven sets of impressions . . .  On horseback, Velvet is in her own, untouchable place, and Gaitskill’s sentences lift their necks and pick up speed to match her movements stride for stride,” says The New Yorker.

Says Publishers Weekly: “In this novel by National Book Award–finalist Gaitskill 11-year-old Dominican-American Velveteen “Velvet” Vargas from Crown Heights in Brooklyn is invited to spend a few weeks with a white couple in upstate New York as part of the Fresh Air Fund sponsorship program. The demure and self-possessed girl is skeptical of the situation at first, but as she continues to visit over the next three years, she develops a relationship with Ginger—an ex-addict and amateur artist—and Ginger’s professor husband, Paul, as well as with the horses at a nearby stable. True to form, as Velvet learns to trust her instinct and develops a talent for riding a feisty horse she renames Fiery Girl, her confidence soars. But problems arise when Velvet hits puberty and discovers boys: Velvet’s single mother, fierce and prone to violence, refuses to allow Velvet to ride and repeatedly calls her worthless, while Ginger goes off the rails dealing with her own insecurities. Gaitskill is renowned for her edgy writing, but the book—narrated by different characters—treads into stereotype. More nuanced portrayals might have made Velvet’s bumpy growth into an independent young woman more palatable. “


When is it available?

This powerful novel is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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