Here’s a first novel from a writer with lots of promise. Writing is good and it’s a page turner—I read three quarters of it in the first sitting. And it deals with non-trivial issues such as the capacity of just about all of us for violence, neglect and betrayal.
Events are seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old narrator, Alice Winston, living on a horse farm in the West. As the novel opens, Alice’s father has just decided to move their horses out and rent stalls to rich horse owners—the stable has never been a going concern and is now in danger of going under. Alice’s sister, Nona, recently left high school and her winning reputation on the horse show circuit to get married. Alice’s mother, a former horse show star, never leaves her room. She looks wasted and thin, takes no interest in the stables or her family, and hasn’t done so since Alice was born. Alice interacts with her primarily through the meals she brings to her room, leaving as soon as she possibly can. Then there’s Sheila, a rich but not particularly talented girl Alice’s age, who has begun to take riding lessons from the father. The father has also sold Yellow Cap, the horse Nona rode to so many blue ribbons, to Sheila. He’s hoping Sheila, however unpromising, will turn into another Nona—and that her rich friends will follow her to the Winston stables. In addition, a coterie of idle rich women (“the Catfish”) hangs around the barn every afternoon, making frivolous demands for their horses, riding occasionally, but mostly gossiping and drinking out of paper cups.
By the way, Alice’s talents as a rider have already been tested and found wanting—her father assumes she should do a huge share of the dirty work at the farm—plus a good deal of cooking and dealing with her mother, but doesn’t count on her to restore the stable’s reputation. Alice misses Nona who was surrogate mother as well as confidant. Screwed up as is her home life, her life at school is no better. She’s unpopular and affects not to care, but when a young girl drowns in an irrigation canal, Alice claims to have been close to her, in an effort to gain some friends herself. When she meets the English teacher who was seen crying at Polly’s funeral, Alice calls him up and passes herself off as Polly’s best friend—hiding in Nona’s closet with her pink telephone—and starts a telephone relationship that threatens to turn into a dangerous liaison, one the teacher seems too irresponsible to handle.
Quite a burden for a 12-year old girl. What follows is a tale of love and betrayal, secrets and revelations, and failures great and small—all of which Alice is left to process pretty much on her own. The grandparents visit and succeed in getting the mother out of bed and participating in life—for awhile—as well as fixing the air-conditioning and moving the stable’s business forward. Nona and her husband come back, bringing secrets and contradictions, but coaching Sheila more successfully than did the father. The father breaks his leg and falls in love with one of the Catfish who finally pays enough attention to Alice to notice that she’s outgrown her clothes. Two episodes of cruelty to horses, one a revelation about the past and one painfully reported in the present are crucial to the plot, but don’t really bear the burden they’re asked to.
I wouldn’t call the novel a complete success. There are too many characters that carry a central role, leaving weak spots when they aren’t handled perfectly. The mother is pretty unbelievable. Supposedly she gave it all up after witnessing the first episode of cruelty, but that she’s been in her bedroom, physically thin and mentally spacey for 12 years is a stretch. The phone relationship with the teacher is wound up suddenly and unsatisfactorily. Still the characters, even the minor ones, are for the most part memorably drawn. The plot is complex, but works thematically if it is not entirely successful dramatically. The central issue of the novel—the capacity of humans to love and still betray—is handled well, though only one incident—that where Alice regrets hurting Sheila with tales of her father’s infidelity—really tells much about how Alice will live the rest of her life.