Mary Gaitskill’s last novel, 2005’s piercingly beautiful National Book Award-nominated “Veronica,’’ told the story of an improbable, vexed, profound connection between two very different women: Allison, a glamorous model, and Veronica, a much older, unattractive proofreader. Gaitskill’s new book, “The Mare,’’ picks up many of the earlier work’s preoccupations: unlikely connections, the intermingling of tenderness and brutality, a hunger for authenticity and intensity leading to danger, the attempt to salvage ideals and save people in a world ravaged by illness, disappointment, and loss. “The Mare’’ muses on these themes via multiple narrators in a story about motherhood, abuse, and the saving powers of love, art, and animals.
The first sentence begins to knot the thematic tangle: “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 her turned away.” On the summer day in question, 11-year-old Velveteen “Velvet” Vargas will leave her poor Dominican mother and brother in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and board a bus to upstate New York, part of a cohort of disadvantaged children placed with “rich white people for two weeks.” Once in Rhinebeck, she will meet Ginger, who offers the warmth, attention, and material comforts her own mother — harsh, cold, abusive — cannot.
On the face of it, Ginger seems underqualified for the job. Forty-seven-years old, a recovering sex addict and alcoholic, Ginger has neither children nor a successful career. She’s coping with the recent deaths of her mentally-ill, drug-addicted sister and her mother. She married late, and she and her academic husband, Paul, have recently been wondering whether it had been a mistake not to have children. Hosting a Fresh Air Fund child is a “way to ‘test the waters,’ to see what it might be like to have somebody else’s fully formed kid around.” Ginger is worldly wise enough to be wary and innocent enough to be sensitive to the dream of new worlds. To her, the Fresh Air Fund brochure “was sentimental and flattering to white vanity and manipulative as hell. It was also irresistible. It made you think the beautiful sentiments you pretend to believe in really might be true.’’
Ginger is instantly besotted with Velvet — “she had a purity of expression that stunned my heart.” Velvet sees the truth about Ginger immediately — “this blond lady . . . her face full of niceness with pain around the edges” — and throws herself into privileged country life with an “enchanted hunger.” Ginger reads and sings to the girl, lovingly brushes her hair, and buys her a new bike. They watch a movie “about a girl discovering that she is a princess . . . Yearningly, Velvet [drinks] in its scenes of senseless abundance and approval . . . [i]n a trance of pleasure.” Ginger begins to call Velvet “princess.”
When Ginger takes Velvet to visit horses at a nearby stable, a new dream is launched. The girl connects immediately with a golden-brown horse who’s angry, scarred, and dangerous. The other kids at the stable call the mare Fugly Girl. Velvet, who identifies with the horse’s “kicking and biting,” renames her Fiery Girl.
Questions soon accumulate into a fine psychological equipoise. Can Ginger, by lavishing Velvet with attention, practical help, and love, save the girl from the harsh world of gangs and drugs and poverty, not to mention her troubled mother? Can Velvet truly transform Fugly Girl into Fiery Girl, and can Fiery Girl help Velvet, a “genius horsewoman,” achieve transcendence? Will Paul, troubled by Ginger’s obsession with the girl, allow his wife to fully embrace Violet? Will Mrs Vargas, fearful for her daughter’s safety, allow Velvet to do what she loves best?
Because this is Gaitskill, none of these questions is provided with easy resolution. In her 2009 essay “Lost Cat,” Gaitskill told how losing her beloved pet was intertwined with the heartrending experience of becoming estranged from two children she’d been close to since they stayed with her under the auspices of the Fresh Air Fund. That experience and Enid Bagnold’s novel, “National Velvet,’’ (on which the Elizabeth Taylor film was based) undergird “The Mare.’’ That Gaitskill has given not only herself a voice but also the husband, the child, and the child’s mother, in equal measure, speaks to her extraordinary artistic achievement here.
People in Gaitskill’s work are kind and cruel, honest and deceptive, strong and weak, wrong and right at the same time. They hurt those they love; they love those who hurt them. When Violet puts her hand on Fiery Girl’s neck, she feels “something in her . . . something little and hurt, too hurt to be bad.” The same could be said of Mrs. Vargas or Velvet herself. The true drama of “The Mare’’ is not whether Velvet will win the riding event that is the plot’s climax but whether all the characters will develop genuine empathy. All these wounded ones must fight through their disappointment in those who have hurt them, failed them, misunderstood them, in order to reconnect to the ones they have likewise wronged. They are seeking a happiness beyond the happy endings that life teaches them to disbelieve.
This is why art for Ginger is “a place more real than anything in ‘real’ life . . . a place of deep joy where, when I could get to it, it was like tuning in to a radio frequency that was sacred to me.” Bracing in its rigorous truth-seeking, subtle and capacious in its moral vision, Gaitskill’s work feels more real than real life and reading her leads to a place that feels like a sacred space.
By Mary Gaitskill
Pantheon, 441 pp., $26.95
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’