Riding Lessons, by Sara Gruen

I found Water for Elephants an enjoyable read (see this blog, 2 July 2007), so I checked out Gruen's earlier book. After a prologue-like chunk of back-story, the book starts out like a bad sitcom: within the first few pages, the heroine has lost her job, discovered that her teenaged daughter is on the verge of being expelled from school, and been abandoned by her husband. Unfortunately, this heroine's surliness and self-absorption made me think all of these events justified and placed my sympathies exclusively with the other characters who had to put up with her.

She has also been informed that her father, whom she hasn't seen in years, has ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), so she collects her daughter and heads to her parents' riding school, determined to take over and run it. Mired in self-pity and arrogance, she quickly brings the school to bankruptcy. The worst kind of daughter, she is still (at 38) stuck in a teenager's rebellion. The worst kind of parent, she undercuts her own attempts to discipline her daughter, giving the girl treats when she misbehaves. And this woman, who apparently doesn't understand the first thing about rewards and punishments and has no self-discipline, is supposed to be a whiz at training horses?

The descriptions of horses and riding are the best things about this book. However, the heroine's self-centered and destructive behavior made me dislike her so much that I found myself hoping more horrible things would happen to her so that she would start acting like an adult instead of a spoiled teenager. Sadly, that never happened, turning her eventual triumph into a disappointment, for me anyway.

While this book was ruined for me by my intense dislike of the heroine, it is not impossible to have a central character whom the reader dislikes but cares about anyway. An example for me is Snowman in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake whose trials moved me although he wasn't particularly likeable (see this blog, 5 November 2007). I couldn't help rooting for him as he navigated his peculiar world.

This whole business of how to encourage a reader to care about a character is fascinating to me. Obviously readers are more likely to care about a character they like and sympathise with, but even that simplistic formula has its variables. I've been surprised, discussing books with friends and book clubs, how often we've disagreed about the main character. For example, one of my friends named the narrator of Truth and Beauty whom I found both creepy and dishonest (see this blog, 6 August 2007) as the character she had admired and cared about most deeply. Another detested Jane Eyre, who remains one of my favorites. More on this subject another time.

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