The Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley (“A Thousand Acres”) loves horses. She got her first one in ninth grade and today, in her early 70s, has three of her own, and rides daily. Her first novel, “Barn Blind” (1980), is about horses, she’s written five young-adult novels in a series called “The Horses of Oak Valley Ranch” and a horse-centric memoir, “A Year at the Races” (2005). In a recent interview she admitted to preferring “horses to some humans.”
I know very little about horses, but I adore Jane Smiley and was intrigued by her latest title “Perestroika in Paris” (Knopf). Yes, it’s another horse novel, but Smiley stretches her talents even further by entering another genre: the talking-animal book. I know, I know … Talking-animal stories seem to fall into two categories: Somber allegories about human nature (“Animal Farm”) and lighter allegories for kids (“Charlotte’s Web”). “Perestroika” doesn’t really fit into either group. Despite the title, the book isn’t about Cold War politics, or politics much at all. And although the animals tend to follow the straightforward archetypes of children’s literature – courageous, wise, proud, adventurous – Smiley avoids a syrupy tale about getting along.
Perestroika – Paras for short – is a 3-year-old thoroughbred who’s just won big at the Auteuil Racecourse, outside of Paris. Her groom, needing a bathroom break (why not just go in the stall, Paras wonders), accidentally leaves the stall’s gate unlatched. Paras is a “very curious filly,” and she wanders off, strolling several kilometers to the Place du Trocadéro, near the Eiffel Tower. There she’s joined by Frida, a sly German shorthaired pointer who has been trying to survive since the death of her owner, Jacques, a street musician. This is a fable, so the animals can talk with each other and it’s written by Smiley, so Frida approaches Paras with thievery on her mind. Paras is carrying her groom’s purse, casually picked up in her stall, and Frida knows that purses usually had money; she saw people pull coins from them for Jacques when he played. Frida also realizes that the sheltered racehorse is clueless about how to use money: “A dog did not live all her life on the streets of Paris without learning how to recognize a sucker when she saw one.” But she decides against stealing the purse and befriends Paras; she’s been lonely since Jacques died and knows she can take charge of the money to feed them both.
Paras and Frida are joined on their odyssey by a Raoul, a wise raven, who speaks seven languages, including Chinese (“all birds speak Chinese,” he says), and keeps a nest on a Benjamin Franklin statue; Sid and Nancy, a pair of bickering ducks; and an anxious black rat named Conrad and his son Kurt. “Mallards are fair game,” shudders Sid. “Owls at twilight, hawks during the day, foxes anytime, dogs for that matter.” When Frida and Paras meet the mallards in a fenced-off corner of the Champ de Mars that becomes their shelter, Frida is hungry enough to justify Sid’s fears, but “she did not feel comfortable stalking and killing Sid and Nancy as she came to know them.” Later in the novel, when Kurt tells his father about Frida sheltering him from discovery on a busy street, Conrad snorts, “Must not have been hungry, then.”
The rats live in the walls of a big decaying ivy-covered house on the Rue Marinoni. It belongs to the nearly 100-year-old Madame de Mornay, so blind and deaf that it’s likely she doesn’t notice that her 8-year-old orphaned great-grandson, Étienne, has harbored Paras in the grand salon. Smiley cleverly provides motives for Étienne, who spots Paras on the Champ de Mars and offers her shelter after a heavy snowstorm. She also justifies the grocer who trades food for money from the mouth of a dog he believes is doing errands for a house-bound owner; the baker who supplies sugar to a horse she thinks is a night-time ghost; and the bumbling gendarme who sees a horse entering a house and decides he had too much to drink the night before. Smiley’s animals have plausible intentions too. The curiosity that took Paras from her stall across Paris leads her to follow Étienne into his great-grandmother’s house, while Frida rejects the same offer due to the fear of confinement she learned from Jacques. This is a fable, but it functions within realistic conventions.
As in all fables, Smiley’s animals have visibly human personality traits, which provide much of the story’s comic relief. Raoul is the kind of verbose old gentleman who can be found on any city park bench, ready to provide the wisdom of age to indifferent youngsters. Sid is like someone who just discovered therapy (“certain experiences I had as a duckling have had a strong impact on my worldview”) and Nancy is a sendup of the overstressed wife and mother. Yet behind the novel’s humor is a craving for love and companionship felt by humans and animals alike. Smiley makes these emotions so real that readers are willing to accept that many people in a Parisian neighborhood would interact with a stray dog and a horse on the loose rather than calling animal control, and that an odd community of horse, dog, rats, and raven would gather around an 8-year-old threatened by the approaching loss of his great-grandmother.
The novel, as charming as it is, has something thoughtful to say about how blindly we venture out and make our way in the world. Paras occasionally wonders why she slipped away from the racetrack life she so enjoyed. “Curiosity was the only answer,” she decides. “Or,” she admits, “sheer ignorance.” By the end, she’s a wiser horse – no longer a filly but an enlightened mare who appreciates “the price of freedom” that a carefree runaway’s life exacts.
“Perestroika in Paris” may be a book marketed for adults, but it would be a perfect gift for any horse-mad, animal-loving, Paris-crazy 12-year-old reader. Smiley delivers a soothing read that’s a welcome reminder of the bright spots even in dark times.