Mary Gaitskill’s newest novel, The Mare, is a sensitive exploration of class, love, and strength born from damage. It revolves around the polar worlds of Ginger and Paul, an artsy couple from upstate New York, and Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican girl living in Brooklyn with her brother and mother. Ginger, a recovering alcoholic and artist, is desperate for children, and believes that hosting an inner city child in the country for the summer through the Fresh Air Fund will be a good way to test her mothering skills. Velvet is assigned to stay with them and immediately takes to the “wonders” of middle-class life in white America. Most notably, she discovers her love for horses through visits to the stables next to Ginger’s neighborhood.
Though Gaitskill tells the story through multiple points of view, Ginger and Velvet being the most prominent, this is ultimately Velvet’s story. She shines in every scene. She affects everyone she comes into contact with and seems to live and breathe in each chapter, even those that she isn’t narrating. Gaitskill’s command of Dominican slang is worth noting and adds authenticity to Velvet’s voice. Her neighborhood, plagued by violence and insecurity, is a strong contrast to the peace that becomes her second home with Ginger. As the two struggle to meet each other in the middle, they end up learning about life and themselves in unexpected ways.
Gaitskill doesn’t avoid uncomfortable situations of race, but rather, confronts them head-on. Velvet and Ginger spend long nights talking about their differences and similarities. Ginger attempts to give Velvet a moral compass to follow and Velvet tries to sort out where she belongs and in the process, discovers that she is a talented equestrienne with a gift for understanding abused animals. One horse in particular that everyone at the stables calls Fugly Girl has a long history of abuse and neglect, as does Velvet. The two quickly bond and carry the story to a deeper, unexpected level. Those familiar with horses will be pleased with Gaitskill’s knowledge and ease at writing about them, their temperaments and the people working with them. She captures Velvet’s relationship with Fugly Girl in an exquisite way. As Velvet learns to trust herself, she inspires trust in her horse.
The full cast as a whole makes for a satisfying romp through very unique pastures. The ideas of abuse and neglect, coupled with sex, maturation and self-discovery, are not new to Gaitskill’s writing, but this particular novel handles them in an unexpected way that I feel most readers will enjoy exploring.