Monday, February 20, 2012
Book Club: "The Art of Racing in the Rain"
For our February meeting we discussed Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain. I had no idea what the book was about, but having seen the book cover I assumed it referred to a dog racing across the park during a rainy day. I was glad to learn I wasn't the only one with this misconception.
We all loved the story told from the viewpoint of Enzo, the dog. In the novel Enzo relates the story of his family: Denny (an aspiring race car driver), Eve (Denny's wife whose parents believe she married beneath her), and Zoe (their daughter). The story is framed by Enzo's end of life remembrances. The title refers to Denny's special skill at driving on a wet track.
Denny, like many of us with dreams, keeps putting his fledgling auto racing career on the back burner when the demands of "real life" interfere. Enzo, with the heightened senses of a dog, knows trouble is ahead for the loving trio. Eve is sick and, despite Enzo's best efforts to alert everyone to how serious her condition is, she dies much too young of cancer.
Denny is devastated, but he has Zoe to raise with Enzo's help. However, Eve's parents begin a campaign to gain custody of Zoe. They have financial advantages that Denny lacks and when he declines their offer the fight gets nasty. Through it all, Enzo is a steadfast supporter of Denny.
The POV narration by Enzo makes the book. Any other character would have made for a dreary accounting of family tragedy and discord. But a dog's honest assessment of events makes the story special.
We gave the author credit for presenting the information the reader needed for the story despite the limited perspective of Enzo. Denny started leaving the television on to entertain Enzo when he was left home alone. In narrating the story Enzo uses the knowledge he accumulated from his TV viewing. He learned to read from watching Sesame Street, and a documentary about the Himalayas convinced him that his next incarnation would be as a man. Enzo's knowledge of the justice system was derived from episodes of crime and legal shows.
Throughout the story, Enzo shares Denny's observations about race car driving -- which of course are metaphors for life. A little heavy handed at times, to my thinking. "That which you manifest is before you" was repeated a couple of times. As Denny explains it, we are the creators of our own destiny. In driving terms, rather than wait for the car to skid during a turn, initiate and control the skid. In an earlier post I discussed what I saw as a correlation between driving a race car and riding a horse over a jump course.
Most of us found the ending a bit contrived. And we wondered about the plausibility of a significant scene that later thwarted Denny during the custody battle for Zoe.
But Enzo was the star of the story and we enjoyed his canine observations. He referred to Eve's parents (Maxwell and Trish) as the Twins -- country club types who dressed alike in polo shirts and khakis. Enzo is convinced that dew claws are the precursors to thumbs and their removal is a human conspiracy to prevent the evolution of dogs into men. His list of favorite actors (in numerical order) and TV education were charming and amusing. Enzo, unlike humans who worry too much about the future in his view, lives in the moment and loyally defends Denny despite his human imperfections.
Believe me, those of us with dogs began looking at them differently while reading the book. Denny's story with its heavy serving of metaphors for life is a typical angst-ridden family drama. It's the POV that sets it apart.
My favorite message from the novel was Denny's statement: "It's never too late. Things change." Denny's character shows remarkable patience and restraint that pay off in the end, but getting there required the help of friends and Enzo's loyalty. Although the novel lacks the whiz bang action preferred by younger readers (except for a few race scenes) -- I believe it would be a good read for children who feel hopeless and alienated. They are so young they lack the perspective that, given time, things can and do change.
Our book club is trying a new approach to our reading selections. We have planned them in advance for the next twelve months! Each member suggested titles that we compiled into a list. After our book discussion we went around the table to describe the books and explain why we recommended them. We then voted using the "dot system" (we each got 12 sticky dots to paste on the printed list of books) and arranged the reads with the most votes for the coming months. It looks like we have just about every genre covered, including our first fantasy read for the group.
In March we will be discussing Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark. This is a stand alone novel by Moon who has written several sf/f series.