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The Mare: A Novel by Mary Gaitskill
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The Mare: A Novel

by Mary Gaitskill

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Forget what you thought you knew about pet therapy. As part of a social welfare program, an eleven year old Dominican girl living in poverty in Brooklyn spends two years of weekends and summers with a more affluent, childless white couple in upstate New York. It's supposed to be their trial run before adoption, but Ginger, married to Paul who already has a child from a previous marriage, falls in love with their sponsee--Velvet. Velvet, already hardened from the streets of Brooklyn and constant belittling and beatings from her mother, is almost at the age of no return, the age where teenagers turn bad. But just as Ginger falls in love with Velvet, Velvet finds her only peace with horses near the couple's home, and one in particular--an abused horse that no one can touch much less ride.

While Velvet's mother is verbally and physically abusive, Ginger is also flawed. Gaitskill explores the meaning of family, addiction, and adultery through the relationship Ginger has with Velvet. Ginger can experience life in ways she could not before Velvet came into her life. As Velvet grows into a teenager and becomes more independent, Ginger is forced to look at her own life and take more responsibility for it.

Velvet has an uncanny ability to read other people and especially the horses. Through her relationship with Fugly, the mare she renames Fiery One, the cycle of her mother's abuse stops affecting her inner self. Like the mare, she is wild and scarred and beautiful and cannot be controlled. Through the lens of Velvet's relationship with Fiery One, Gaitskill explores teenage love, teenage pregnancy, sexual exploitation of minors, racial discrimination, socioeconomic discrimination, lack of self esteem, and a teenage girl's love for an abusive mother.

Gaitskill's writing is engaging. The chapters are short, named after the main characters, and written in their points of view, alternating back and forth. The novel is a page turner, and in the top two or three I've read in 2017. ( )
  ErinDenver | Jun 12, 2017 |
For me this book was a basically good story about: what it's like to come from the Dominican Republic to live in America in poverty; how 'helping' other people can in fact be really helping yourself and be somewhat patronising in the process; and how a marriage relationship can be easily undermined by dishonesty. On the other hand, it's a story about a girl who falls in love with a horse and is 'rescued' by the equine relationship. The horse story is rather schmaltzy and romantic and to me it took the edge off an otherwise above-average novel. ( )
  oldblack | Jan 19, 2017 |
Even the hard parts of this book - mother's ongoing cruel treatment of daughter, school/street conflicts, Ginger's timidity & backsliding, Velvet's fears,
Beverly's whip - are treated with exceptional grace.

The story moves fluidly between the mean poverty of Brooklyn to pretty and calm upstate New York suburbia, with characters offering insights in many overlapping directions, interpersonal to the beauty of connections with horses.

Many readers may well wish that a boy or girl friend will enter to defend Violet and keep her confidence restored...

...so blindly destroyed by Mami at every turn. ( )
  m.belljackson | Oct 19, 2016 |
There's been a lot of books written about young girls and horses and of course there is the iconic film National Velvet. I am pretty sure that Mary Gaitskill wants this book to be seen as a modern day National Velvet. After all, even her main character is called Velvet although her full name is Velveteen Vargas. Interestingly, the National Velvet film is never referenced in this whole book although a few times it seems like people reacting to the character's name in relation to horses are going to mention it but they never complete the thought.

Velveteen Vargas is twelve years old at the beginning of the book. She, her younger brother, Dante, and her mother Silvia live in a tenement in Brooklyn. Silvia grew up in the Dominican Republic but came to New York just before Velvet was born. Velvet's father, married to someone else, was supposed to be joining them but never made it. Silvia married in order to stay in the USA but that marriage broke up as well. Silvia works long hours as a health care aide so Velvet and Dante spend quite a few hours after school is over alone. Velvet is very good looking and also older appearing than her age. It's not much wonder that she attracts male attention when she is out on the street alone. Velvet and Silvia have a difficult relationship and the reader can't help but be shocked by the discipline Silvia hands out. It is clear that Silvia worries and cares for Velvet. So when the chance to send the children to families in upstate New York for a few weeks in the summer comes up Silvia is quite willing to let them go. Ginger and Paul do not have children of their own and, at age 48, Ginger is not likely to conceive. She would like to adopt but Paul is not sure (he and his first wife had a daughter so he has parental experience). Ginger presents the idea of fostering a child for a few weeks as a way to see if they are cut out for adoption. Velvet comes to stay with them and when Ginger suggests that Velvet might like to visit the horse farm across the street Velvet jumps at the chance. Soon she is spending hours there and she encounters the abused mare, Fugly Girl. I think Velvet sees something of herself in the horse and, for her part, Fugly Girl recognizes someone she can trust.

If this was a more conventional novel Velvet and Fugly Girl might immediately bond and go on to win competitions and gain recognition and admiration from the (mostly white) horse fancying community. I have to give Gaitskill credit for not taking that easy way out. For my taste, however, I thought the time between initial encounter and end of the book was too drawn out. And some things which could have been more fully developed just got dropped without explanation (for instance there is talk of Silvia and the kids moving to upstate New York and Ginger even has them up to see a community theatre production of A Christmas Carol to show them what things the community might offer; but after that the plan to have the family move never got mentioned).

Interesting but flawed novel. ( )
  gypsysmom | Jun 17, 2016 |
I actually really liked this book, even though I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. I think the ending was just right.

The premise is that there is a program where inner city children get to go for a summer vacation with families who sign up. Of course, the child has problems (life) and the families (both) have problems (life). But the summer family lives next to a stable, and there is a horse that the girl is attracted to, the horse has the most problems of all. The Mare becomes her own character, and at times symbolizes all of the women in the story.

How can this possibly end good for this child? Well, it is not a perfect world, and there are no perfect answers, but sometimes there are perfect moments, and sometimes we can learn quite a bit about our sanctimonious ways by reading a novel. Well done. ( )
  sydsavvy | Apr 8, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
By reputation, Mary Gaitskill is a writer not only immune to sentiment but actively engaged in deep, witchy communion with the perverse...No writer is sharper about the fickle exigencies of desire. Dominance and submission—the shifting poles that govern all relationships, not just sexual ones—are Gaitskill’s great subjects...One such child is Velveteen Vargas, called Velvet, who appears in Gaitskill’s new novel, “The Mare” (Pantheon). When the book opens, Velvet is eleven....Their greatest power struggle takes place around the question of horses. As soon as Velvet begins to take riding lessons, it’s clear that she’s a natural equestrian. Silvia is sure that she’ll fall and kill herself, and refuses to grant permission for her to ride; Ginger, delighting in Velvet’s skill and the transformative potential of her obvious excellence, secretly overrules her.
 
Gaitskill’s extraordinary, subtle rendering of the complex physical and spiritual pulse among these people tenuously yoked together by liberal ideals touches, obviously, on tricky questions of class and race. She pushes that edge by taking on not only Velvet’s point of view, but also her abusive mother’s, and by going deeply into Velvet’s world at home, her life at school, her growing interest in the boys in her neighborhood. Now and then, things get dodgy. While I could accept that Velvet’s mother, out of rage, internalized misogyny and a twisted form of protectiveness, beats her daughter and wildly favors her son... People, in this book, lie to one another and to themselves in what they say and do, but their bodies are exquisitely sensitive instruments for experiencing the true, secret, unnameable lives of others. .. People, in this book, lie to one another and to themselves in what they say and do, but their bodies are exquisitely sensitive instruments for experiencing the true, secret, unnameable lives of others. Gaitskill delivers this visceral moment, and others like it, with full knowledge that embraces can be rough, and the people offering them are nearly always flawed, vulnerable and scarred. And yet, she insists in this magnificently hopeful novel. And yet.
 
The Mare, too, thrives on the idea and the actuality of social collision; what it represents to us in terms of a radical challenge to the deeply embedded stratification of haves and have-nots, and how it is experienced by complex, damaged, frail, angry and desiring human beings. What lies, asks Gaitskill, in the gap between the theory and the reality?... At a crudely superficial level, everyone in The Mare behaves true to type; it is in its more subterranean depths that the mystery of attachment begins to show itself. Gaitskill is a writer who situates herself in a version of reality, and then studs it with the portents and symbols of the unconscious; the tiny box of found objects, including a broken doll that looks like Ginger, that Velvet keeps close; the news reports from the Iraq war that float from the car radio into Ginger’s agitated brain. And while The Mare is not perfect – sustaining a child’s voice is near-impossible, and the book’s adherence to an unfolding temporal narrative means that it lapses into episodic repetitiveness – it is bold, dramatic and deeply unsettling.
 
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Epigraph
The Browns...loved each other, deeply, from the back of the soul, with intolerance in daily life. ---National Velvet
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That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom's back my face against her and turned away.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307379744, Hardcover)

From the author of the National Book Award–nominated Veronica: Mary Gaitskill’s most poignant and powerful work yet—the story of a Dominican girl, the white woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her
 
Velveteen Vargas is eleven years old, a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn. Her host family is a couple in upstate New York: Ginger, a failed artist on the fringe of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Paul, an academic who wonders what it will mean to “make a difference” in such a contrived situation. The Mare illuminates the couple’s changing relationship with Velvet over the course of several years, as well as Velvet’s powerful encounter with the horses at the stable down the road, as Gaitskill weaves together Velvet’s vital inner-city community and the privileged country world of Ginger and Paul. The timeless story of a girl and a horse is joined with the timeless story of people from different races and socioeconomic backgrounds trying to meet one another honestly in a novel that is raw, striking, and completely original.

(retrieved from Amazon Sun, 26 Jul 2015 13:02:41 -0400)

"Velveteen Vargas is eleven years old, a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn. Her host family is a couple in upstate New York: Ginger, a failed artist and shakily recovered alcoholic, and her academic husband, Paul. Gaitskill illuminates their shifting relationships over several years, as well as Velvet's encounter with the horses at the stable down the road. Mare is the story of a girl and a horse, joined with a story of people from different races and classes trying to meet one another honestly."--From jacket flap.… (more)

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