For me, Jane Smiley’s work is a little unpredictable. While I consider her A Thousand Acres to be one of the best books I’ve read, I haven’t liked others as much. To my surprise, though, I really enjoyed Horse Heaven.
In this novel, Smiley attempts a difficult feat—she wants to show all the nooks and crannies of horse racing by depicting quite a number of characters. There are owners, trainers, riders, jockeys, bettors, and veterinarians. There are also horses, a handful of which are important to the plot.
The novel isn’t plot heavy. We’re not headed toward a showdown among the major players at the races. Instead, each character has his or her own plot trajectory. The shifty trainer Buddy will do anything to win a race but suddenly finds Jesus. Elegant owner Rosalind is married to loud and gauche Al and has an affair with her trainer, Dick. Irish trainer Deidre thinks of herself as bitter and brusque but is adored by the people who work for her. Zen horse trainer Farley falls madly in love with rider Joy, who feels most comfortable alone. Elizabeth is an animal psychic who gets tips on the races from a retired racehorse.
I complained in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy that there were too many characters to get to know. But here, even though you see them in little vignettes, you do begin to care about them.
And I cared even more about some of the horses. Without actually anthropomorphizing them, Smiley gives them discernible characters. I was particularly captured by Justa Bob, an intelligent, reliable horse who begins a downhill slide mostly because of the carelessness of his owners. Smiley does’t focus just on champions. There is Mr. T., the retired horse; Froney’s Sis, a young filly who is timid and a slow learner; and Epic Storm, a horse who is fast but dangerous and mean.
If you like horses, I think you will love this book, but even if you don’t, Smiley shows us a fascinating, complex world. The novel is written in a breezy style with quite a bit of humor.