Friday, January 18, 2013

THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN

Review of THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN by GARTH STEIN

This one sat on my to-read bookshelf for years before I finally made time for it. I expected to like it, but I didn't expect to love it as much as I did. Everyone describes THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN as a story told from a dog's perspective, but that might be a little misleading. Yes, it is. Yes, that's the hook. But, no, that's not the story, only how the story's delivered, the unique point of view. The actual story follows a family torn apart by brain cancer.

We learn in the first chapter that our dog narrator, Enzo, has grown old and might be put down soon. It's either a testament to Stein's phenomenal skill that I already felt the potential loss of a character I met only pages ago...or proof that I'm a crazy dog person who will cry over fictional dog deaths without any context whatsoever. (Perhaps a combination of both?) From there, the story backtracks to tell the tale of Enzo's life as intertwined with the life of his family, until we come full circle to the old dog we met in the first chapter.

The title refers to Enzo's owner Danny's profession as a racecar driver. Stein has stuffed this book with insightful driving metaphors sprinkled into the rest of the narrative, which he divides into short chapters that make this book an easy, fast read. The story hits both the high and low moments and emotions in life, making it a tale both happy and sad, depending on your philosophical bent and what lingers with you most after you finish reading. The human characters aren't always likable, but that makes them even more real. Here's where the dog narrator really pays off, because no matter what's going on with the humans, Enzo remains a likable and sympathetic protagonist. One particular action on Danny's part so infuriated me that I might have stopped reading if he, rather than Enzo, had been the lead. However, after the tragedies and injustices started piling on, I admitted to myself that I doubt I could handle Danny's problems with half as much dignity and control as he does. Speaking of said injustices, I found myself significantly worked up by this fictional world, always a good sign that it's well-written. In fact, I occasionally forgot it wasn't a memoir! (The dog narrator served as a steady reminder.)

I’ve never been someone who memorizes exact lines from books. Even if, as I’m reading, I note many perceptive, exceptional phrases or sentences, I’m still not likely to recall that remarkable line years later. However, one sentence popped out at me in this book. “To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live” (160). It’s not a brand new concept, but it’s adeptly phrased and just one example of many powerful musings in this novel.

Last, I want to comment on Enzo as an anthropomorphized dog. I have a fair amount of experience with dogs, including raising Guide Dogs for the Blind and studying dog behavior, especially body language, so when it comes to reading, I'm always critical of talking and/or thinking dogs. THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN led me to the conclusion that I'm actually much less skeptical about what a fictional dog thinks as what the dog does. If the author gives their dog human-like mental capabilities, I'll go along with however this dog views the world. What bugs me is when they don't even act like a dog, when they do things a real dog would never do. I'm pleased to say Enzo didn’t stray into that territory. He's very smart and observant - he picks up English, among other knowledge, from listening to the humans around him and watching television documentaries - but he still acts like a dog. Of course, that makes it more pronounced the one time Enzo does demonstrate his understanding by physically intervening in Danny's decision.

The premise (dog narrator) might help sell this book, but it’s the writing and the characters that make it extraordinary.

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