I’d heard RAVES about this book from all of my friends that had read it, people whose opinions on writing I respect very much. (I also heard that I should read it with a box of tissues, which made me gulp.) But I just didn’t love this book as much as they did, for a couple of reasons (and I don’t think — though I could be wrong about this — it was because I listened to it as an audiobook, although I know sometimes good books can be ruined by awful audiobook performances).
It’s been over a month and half since I finished this book, so forgive me if leave out a few things, but the basic plot of The Art of Racing in the Rain is that it’s told from the perspective of a dog* – a very smart, kind, observant dog named Enzo — who is at the end of his life and has some things to say. It’s pretty much a given that if you have a book about a dog, that dog is going to die, but I did appreciate that TAoRitR let us know up front that yeah, dude’s going to die, instead of trying to be clever and sneak it up on us. That way I could mentally prepare for it (still didn’t stop me from crying buckets, but more on that later).
*Just in case you were wondering, my favorite dog-as-narrator book is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. OH MY GOD. (Also in case you care (you don’t) my favorite narrated by mouse story is Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary because he rides a tiny motorcycle, and my favorite narrated by hamster story is I, Houdini, by Lynne Reid Banks, because the hamster is an asshole, and it is hilarious.)
Enzo’s owner is an up and coming race car driver named Denny, and Enzo loves him very much. Not surprisingly, Enzo also develops a taste for racecar driving (watching, not driving, obviously), and the whole book is laced with the underlying metaphor of “racing is life.” That sounds cheesy, but it’s actually very well done. For instance, one of the things Denny tells Enzo (in the way an owner talks to a pet — this isn’t the kind of book where humans talk to animals) is that “Your car goes where your eyes go,” or “That which you manifest is before you.” Enzo is also convinced (because he saw it on television one time) that when he dies, he will be reborn as a human. It is his fondest desire to go find Denny as a human and shake his hand.
Racing is just a small part of the book, though. The majority of the story focuses on Denny’s family, his wife Eve and their daughter Zoe, and what happens to Denny (and Enzo by extension) when Eve dies of cancer, and her parents attempt to ruin Denny’s life. Parts of this story (mostly the parts involving happy times) were wonderful — I love the way Stein characterizes Denny, Eve, and Zoe — but Eve’s parents were such despicable, over the top villains that it actually turned my stomach a little at the book itself. Stein has a tendency to fall into cliches at important moments, and the custody battle that erupts around Zoe is pure melodrama, as is a story that involves Denny being accused of rape by a teenage girl. Those two stories felt like something out of a soap opera, very out of place, and the only thing that saved it was the brilliance of Enzo as narrator. Especially at the end of the book (which does have a happy ending, sort of), I felt like I was being concsiously emotionally manipulated, and I resented it.
Of course, that’s not to say that I didn’t cry like a little bitch when Enzo died at the end (and something else that I won’t spoil as well), but I did. But didn’t I feel like an asshole sitting there sobbing like an idiot even while I knew that was exactly what Stein wanted, the stupid jerk – but I am helpless against the power of certain stories. Definitely worth reading, just know you’re in for an emotional ride if you pick it up. (Stay away from the audiobook . . . Christopher Welch does a nice job with the male characters, but his female characters are annoying and cringeworthy.)
[Cross-posted to Goodreads]