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Horse Heaven [Paperback]

Jane Smiley
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (95 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Dec 12 2012
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "A Thousand Acres", this novel is set in the world of horse racing. Smiley paints a picture of a world that is passionate, cold-hearted, pure and corrupt, full of track brats, horse-mad girls and nervy jockeys.

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From Amazon

It takes a great deal of faith to gear a novel this horse-besotted to the general public. Horse love is one of those things either you get or you don't, and for the vast majority of the populace, horse stories tend to read like porn written for 13-year-old girls. The good news, then, is that while a love of all things equine is not a prerequisite for enjoying Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven, a love of human perversity is. Racing, after all, is at worst a dangerous, asset-devouring folly and at best an anachronism, as one of her horse trainers notes:
The Industry Leaders had made it their personal mission to bring horse racing to the attention of the general public, with the NFL as their model and television as their medium of choice, which was fine with Farley, though his own view was that horse racing out at the track, newspaper reading, still photography, placing bets in person, and writing thank-you notes by hand were all related activities, and football, ESPN, video, on-line betting, and not writing thank-you notes at all were another set of related activities.
A crucial piece of information for Smiley fans is that, among her many novels, Horse Heaven most resembles Moo. (And there's even a pig!) In fact, with these two books it appears that this versatile author has finally found a home in which to unpack her impressive gifts: that is, the sprawling, intricately plotted satirical novel. Her target in this case is not academia but horse racing--less commonly satirized but, here at least, just as fruitfully so. Wickedly knowing, dryly comic, the result is as much fun to read as it must have been to write.

None of which means that Horse Heaven is a casual read. For starters, one practically needs a racing form to keep track of its characters, particularly when their stories begin to overlap and converge in increasingly unlikely and pleasing ways. Perhaps it says something about the novel that the easiest figures to follow are the horses themselves: loutish Epic Steam, the "monster" colt; the winsome filly Residual; supernaturally focused Limitless; and trembling little Froney's Sis. And that's not to forget Horse Heaven's single most prepossessing character, Justa Bob--a little swaybacked, a little ewe-necked, but possessed of a fine sense of humor and an abiding disdain for winning races by anything but a nose.

Then there are the humans, including but not limited to socialite Rosalind Maybrick, her husband Al (who manufactures "giant heavy metal objects" in "distant impoverished nationlike locations"), a Zen trainer, a crooked trainer, a rapper named Ho Ho Ice Chill, an animal psychic, and a futurist scholar, as well as attendant jockeys, grooms, and hangers-on. (Not to mention poor, ironically named Joy, a few years out of Moo U and still having problems relating.) It's a little frustrating to watch this cast come and go and fight for Smiley's attention; you glimpse them so vividly, and then they disappear for another hundred pages, and it breaks your heart.

But there are certainly worse problems a novel could have than characters to whom you grow overattached. A plot this convoluted would be one, if only it weren't so hard to stop reading. There are elements of magic realism, astounding coincidences, unabashed anthropomorphism. (At one point--while Justa Bob throws himself against his stall in sorrow at leaving his owner's tiny, wordless mother behind--this reviewer cried, "Shameless!" even as she began to tear up.) Improbably, it all works. Horse Heaven is a great, joyous, big-hearted entertainment, a stakes winner by any measure, and for both horse lovers and fans of Smiley's dry, character-based wit, a cause for celebration on par with winning the Triple Crown. --Mary Park --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

The Chinese calendar aside, 2000 may be the Year of the Horse. Almost neck and neck with Alyson Hagy's Keeneland, this novel about horses and their breeders, owners, trainers, grooms, jockeys, traders, bettors and other turf-obsessed humans is another winner. Smiley, it turns out, knows a prodigious amount about Thoroughbreds, and she is as good at describing the stages of their lives, their temperaments and personalities as she is in chronicling the ambitions, financial windfalls and ruins, love affairs, partings and reconciliations of her large cast of human characters. With settings that range from California and Kentucky to Paris, the novel covers two years in which the players vie with each other to produce a mount that can win high-stakes races. Readers will discover that hundreds of things can go wrong with a horse, from breeding through birth, training and racing, and that every race has variables and hazards that can produce danger and death, as well as the loss of millions of dollars. (A scene in which one horse stumbles and sets off a chain reaction of carnage is heartbreaking.) Characters who plan, scheme, connive and yearn for a winner include several greedy, impetuous millionaires and their wives; one trainer who is a model of rectitude, and another who has found Jesus but is crooked to the core; two preadolescent, horse-obsessed kids; a knockout black woman whose beauty is the entrance key to the racing world; the horses themselves (cleverly, Smiley depicts a horse communicator who can see into the equine mind); and one very sassy Jack Russell dog. Written with high spirits and enthusiasm, distinguished by Smiley's wry humor (as in Moo), the novel gallops into the home stretch without losing momentum. Fans of A Thousand Acres may feel that Smiley has deserted the realm of serious literature for suspense and romance, but this highly readable novel shows that she can perform in both genres with ?lan. 150,000 first printing; 15-city author tour; Random House audio. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Heavenly June 8 2004
By Wynnie
Format:Paperback
As a rider and owner myself, I usually shy away from horse related novels because the inaccuracy annoys me. This book was extensively researched, and a pleasant relief for those who actually are familiar with how the horse industry operates. At the same time, I'm sure it can be understood and enjoyed by those with just a simple interest in horses, rather than a working knowledge. Understandably, the seemingly endless parade of characters can be a little confusing, but it serves a point. In the circle of the horse industry, there is rarely a simple tale to be told of a horse, rider or owner. The dysfunctionally enmeshed lifestyle in which we lead puts us in a clique where everyone does thread to everyone else somehow, even when they don't know it. This work is not a light read, but well worth it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Horse Heaven Dec 4 2003
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Horse Heaven is well paced novel about the thoroughbred horse racing industry. Jane Smiley skillfully relates her intimate knowledge of the business and it's eclectic owners, trainers, and hangers-on. Unique to the genre is her talent of relating the unvarnished nuances of the industry from the equine athlete's point of view.
A wonderful adult read especially appreciated by animal lovers and horse enthusiasts.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Beyond Dick Francis� Sept. 22 2003
Format:Paperback
While Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven is no simple whodunit, it does take on the mystery of the attachment of humans to horses. There's no real answer, other than that it is a lifetime obsession. Some are inspired, some are ruined, and some are saved by the love and devotion to these animals.
I was a little overwhelmed at the beginning of the book - all these threads pulling at once, trying to keep the connections straight - even the chapter on Eileen the Jack Russell Terrier - but as time went on, those threads caught.
Characters that seemed to have nothing in common with each other came together in strange or serendipitous ways, enriching the plot and driving it forward. The breezy style of writing is fun, and each chapter moves to a new character in the list, so that you begin to see how it all overlaps. You see how much emotion is invested - not just in the animals but also in the relationships with all the other humans involved. Each plays a special role: the breeder, the trainer, the jockeys, and of course, the owners. And while I wasn't sure about the idea of the horses 'speaking', it made sense once you were on your way.
I never gave much thought to the world of racing, other than the few days before the Derby. However, I find myself contemplating a trip to the track, just so that I can watch these magnificent animals do what Horse Heaven seems to be sure of - the beauty of running.
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1.0 out of 5 stars Enough is enough Aug. 25 2003
Format:Paperback
This is possibly the most boring, uneventful, horrible book that I have had the misfortune to come across. The endless parade of new characters was mind-numbing and tedious. I didn't care about any of them because Smiley gave you no time to get to know anyone, she was too busy adding someone new. Ho Ho Ice Chill indeed.
I feel like writing to Ms. Smiley myself and asking for my money back.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Horse Heaven a Heavenly Read May 8 2003
Format:Paperback
This is such a lovely, entertaining, fascinating, moving book that I hated to finish it. I got so fond of all the characters (including the horses) and wanted to continue to track them and their fortunes. I haven't had such fun since I was mad about Black Beauty as a child. And it stirred up my affection for horses, their intelligence, they fortitude, their dignity and their beauty and their close relationships with people -- that there is a whole world out there in which people are fixated on horses is rendered absolutely real and compelling in Smiley's novel. It made me sorry not to be a trainer or a groom or a horse masseuse or at the very least, an owner. This book has everything -- pathos, satire, great characters, wonderful insight into horses and people abound. This novel has it all.
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5.0 out of 5 stars not just for horse lovers Jan. 27 2003
Format:Paperback
Like many women, I went through a horsey phase as a girl, but mine was mild-- I drew them incessantly for a while, and enjoyed my riding lessons at summer camp. I've never gotten into horse books, and I'd never have read this one had it not been a book club pick.
Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be one of my favorite reads of 2002, and one of my favorite books! The world of horse racing and trading is one Smiley knows inside and out, and she doesn't insult our intelligence by overexplanation-- she immerses the reader in it.
With an unusual structure and multiple protagonist that centers more around the horses then the people, this book is Tolstoyan in its scope, warmth and humanity (and that includes the outlook on the horses)
There are lots of characters and horses, but all are memorable. Generously drawn with some passages so thought-provoking, even profound, that I underlined and dated. Smiley tells a great story, but the pleasure is as much in her prose and her revelations (a passage about happiness being something that shimmers around you brought me up short)
It's a big book-600 pages-but a real epic, and worth it. Smiley manages to do the pov of a couple of the horses without ever becoming maudlin and anthropomorphic. There's a horse psychic who describes how the horse sees the world beneath its feet as if rolling in waves-- what an arresting vision of what it must be like to move so fast on four feet. One of the characters finds herself inexplicably able to grant wishes for awhile. The book has elements of magic realism in the best tradition-- handled casually, as just another part of life.
Through the journeys of the main horses we see vignettes of owners, traders, gamblers, riders-- all handled with humanity and heart.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good Read, but Frustrating
I have to agree with other reviewers that the sheer number of characters and story lines introduced at the beginning of the book was overwhelming and frustrating. Read more
Published on Nov. 16 2002 by "racantwell"
5.0 out of 5 stars A True Desert Island Classic
This is a book you'd pick for a desert island classic. There is so much here about human nature and horse nature to ponder. Read more
Published on Aug. 5 2002 by M. Tarman
2.0 out of 5 stars This was very boring
I've read other Jane Smiley works that I've loved (A Thousand Acres, Moo) but I bought this booked based on the positive reviews that I read in Amazon and I must say that this is... Read more
Published on Aug. 5 2002
2.0 out of 5 stars I only borrowed this book because it was about horse racing
and I've been a racing fan for about 25 years now. If I could've edited this book, it would only be half as long. Read more
Published on July 17 2002 by DawnStorm
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable read, almost great
I will assume you have learned about the story from the other reviews and won't bother repeating it. Read more
Published on July 6 2002 by D. C. Palter
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply Sublime
"Horse Heaven" should still be on the best-seller list. The book was recommended to me by a friend this past Christmas, and am I glad I got it. Read more
Published on April 20 2002 by Joan Minor
4.0 out of 5 stars Equine fun!
Jane Smiley's best book is probably A THOUSAND ACRES. I had trouble with it. I guess because of the V.C. Andrews incest theme. Read more
Published on March 18 2002 by Dave Schwinghammer
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