Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen
(Harper Torch, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-058027-5
Riding Lessons is the story of a woman coming to terms with her past and learning how not to be a screwup. It’s set inside an interesting plot framework, but the first-person choice of narration strands readers inside the head of a character who isn’t sympathetic enough to carry the story.

Annemarie Zimmer was raised in an equestrian family, and at eighteen, was well on her way to being an Olympic contender. Then a riding accident shattered her ambitions. Annemarie was left badly injured in a fall that killed her beloved horse, Harry. Annemarie walked away from riding, married for convenience, had a child out of boredom, and now, at thirty-eight, is faced with a soon-to-be-ex-husband who has found someone who will love him back. She’s also lost her job.

Then Annemarie receives a phone call from her mother, Mutti. Her father, Helmut, has Lou Gehrig’s disease, and it’s getting worse. Soon Annemarie is on a plane to her family’s New Hampshire horse farm, with her surly teenaged daughter, Eva, in tow. Annemarie isn’t on good terms with her parents, who never understood her decision to leave riding behind. Helmut, especially, saw it as a betrayal of her talent.

There is a new face at the farm – Jean-Claude, a trainer with a great sensitivity toward horses. Annemarie also renews her acquaintance with Dan, a local veterinarian who runs a shelter of sorts for abused horses. It is here that Annemarie will find another horse – with an uncanny resemblance to her beloved Harry – and the events that follow will turn her life in a new direction.

With the exception of the initial riding accident, every problem in Annemarie’s life is of her own making, which didn’t make her easy to like. You’d think by thirty-eight Annemarie would have developed some introspection, but everything seems to come as a big surprise to her. Her husband walks out? Upon thinking about it, she admits she didn’t really love him. But she’s mad and embarrassed, and therefore won’t respond to any of his emails about the divorce settlement. Her parents don’t understand her? True, but did she ever sit down and have an honest talk with them about her feelings toward riding? No. Annemarie plays the victim for far too long.

Her actions upon arriving at the farm aren’t any more mature, and the resulting problems are simply exasperating to the reader. The barn manager informs her they’re running low on hay and straw, something a stable absolutely cannot do, but Annemarie keeps on forgetting to order more, then whines when she has to pay an exorbitant cost for a last-minute delivery. She offers to make a gourmet dinner to impress Dan, even though she can’t cook. But hey, she’s got a cookbook, so how hard can it be? Predictable disaster ensues. Annemarie loves her daughter, but is stuck in a pattern of “bitch first, talk later”, so their relationship is strained to the breaking point. It’s left to everyone around her to patch up Annemarie’s life and get her on the right track.

Eva, the daughter, is quite sympathetic, as she might well be with a mess like Annemarie for a mother. Dan and Jean-Claude are both intriguing, and the author keeps readers guessing as to who the love interest will be. Unfortunately, we never get to hear from them, as the first-person narration leaves us prey to only Annemarie’s thoughts. And those thoughts too often descend into self-pity at the shambles of her life.

The mystery of the horse who is Harry’s double acts as a catalyst to spur Annemarie out of her self-absorbtion. She then becomes so absorbed in the horse that everything around her continues to spin out of control, so it’s only a shift, not an improvement. Mutti and Dan, the two steady elements in Annemarie’s life, bring about the resolution.

Sara Gruen has an interesting voice for a new author and I’d gladly try her next book. Riding Lessons offers a glimpse into her potential. But a heroine the reader can’t – or won’t – identify with is problematic at best.

--Cathy Sova

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