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The Mare

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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.

441 pages, Hardcover

First published November 3, 2015

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About the author

Mary Gaitskill

74 books1,148 followers
Mary Gaitskill is an American author of essays, short stories and novels. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Esquire, The Best American Short Stories (1993 and 2006), and The O. Henry Prize Stories (1998). She married writer Peter Trachtenberg in 2001. As of 2005, she lived in New York City; Gaitskill has previously lived in Toronto, San Francisco, and Marin County, CA, as well as attending the University of Michigan where she earned her B.A. and won a Hopwood Award. Gaitskill has recounted (in her essay "Revelation") becoming a born-again Christian at age 21 but lapsing after six months.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 744 reviews
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
703 reviews3,276 followers
May 9, 2017
Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

Velveteen (Velvet) Vargas is an eleven-year-old Dominican girl from the inner city whose family signs up for the Fresh Air Fund, a program that pairs kids from Brooklyn with a host family in upstate New York. Velvet is paired with an Anglo woman named Ginger and her husband Paul. They take Ginger to their rural home, located down the road from a small-town stable, where Velvet discovers the joy of riding. While she develops a close bond with an abused horse named Fugly Girl, Velvet begins to feel torn between her biological family and her host family.

The Mare is a tale of different classes and races coming together; sometimes clashing, other times finding common ground. While exploring racial piety, white guilt, and the tumults of a girl coming of age, this books reads like a slice of life. It spans the length of a few years, and its characters are as flawed and complex as real people, making them easy to relate to or identify with.

While most of the characters have strong narrative voices, Velvet's voice belies her age. She is eleven years old when she first appears in the book, but she speaks like a foul-mouthed adult. One could argue that her crude language and lack of decorum is representative of her abusive, impoverished home life; either way, it's easy to forget she's a child.

If it was anybody else I would've said, Fuck you. You think you can use me like that? But she was Strawberry. So I said, "Okay."

When I got Velvet on the phone, she said, "She acts so nice in front of everybody else! I am so sick of her bullshit!"

Fugly Girl - a quarter horse thoroughbred mix - makes for an endearing character with her tragic backstory. She and Velvet have a lot in common, and the moments they share together make for some of the most emotive writing in the book.

There was a gold-brown horse kicking, and biting the hell out of her cage. Her eyes were rolling in her head and you could see the white around them. [. . .] There were no ribbons or toys or even a name on her cage, just a sign that read "Do Not Touch." I came close to her and she looked at me. That's when I saw the scars on her face, straight, deep scars around her nose and eyes.

So I held the saddle and swung my leg and then I was on top of [Fugly Girl]. And then I felt her. I felt her say things, deep things; mostly I felt that she was strong, that she didn't have to let me on her, or do anything I told her. But she did and she would

Perhaps the most interesting character is Ginger, a childless recovering alcoholic with a history of crappy relationships and a failed career as an artist. Ginger projects her needs onto Velvet, and the contrived circumstances of their union calls into question her motives and her level of awareness about the full scope of their relationship. Is Ginger an ignorant racist? A childless neurotic fool? A desperate woman? A nurturing woman? Or a woman who has found, in caring for Velvet - a new form of addiction to replace her old one?

And still, it was her child, the lovely girl that she doesn't even want, the child I finally loved, who somehow allowed me a way in, who made me feel what everyone else felt; finally I could join, be part of the play - except everybody thought that was wrong too, that somehow I still wasn't doing it right.

The pacing in The Mare remains tepid throughout. Characters are complex but moments of self-realization are few and far between. And the ending lacks a sense of resolution; the conclusion may leave some readers asking, "What was the point?"
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,033 reviews48.5k followers
November 11, 2015
In the twilight of a year rich with books about race in America, Mary Gaitskill has just published a novel about the knee-smashing effects of minority poverty and the corrosive tonic of liberal guilt. “The Mare” is not a colossal epic of our era; its vision is precise; its protagonists — all female — are socially invisible. But here, without a drop of condescension, is fiction that pumps blood through the cold facts of inequality in our country.

The whole story germinates in soil fertilized by good intentions. For Velvet, an 11-year-old Dominican girl in Brooklyn, the Fresh Air Fund promises a chance to get away from the city, to swim, to ride a horse. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,006 reviews36k followers
February 5, 2018
Audiobook....narrated by Kyla Garcia, Christa Lewis, Sean Pratt, and Nicol Zanzarella
.....and the physical hardcover

The four Audiobook narrators were each excellent telling Velvet’s story. Each voice was so different and distinct- adding zesty seasonings - of moods - emotions - points of view - and atmosphere enriching the novel as it unfolds.

The physical book was great too — allowing a different type of personal intimacy between me ( the reader) - and the characters a little deeper. I was able to ‘stop’ in mid sentence and reflect easier than when the audiobook continued to run.
But I really Love BOTH CHOICES!

THIS IS SUCH A HEARTFELT NOVEL.....emotional in that everyone starts off so broken. And everyone needs everyone! This is the first book I’ve read by Mary Gaitskill ....and I look forward to reading more of her books.
What I especially love - besides the storytelling- the complexities explored - was the way the author brings us into each of the characters inner dialogue. We know how they are feeling and thinking -sometimes very different than the way the behave - saying things opposite from what they feel - or reasons for holding back expressing honest thoughts.

Ginger and her husband Paul - in their 40’s - live in upstate New York - in the country. They have a tender relationship from having gone through hard times themselves.
Ginger is a shakily recovered alcoholic and not a hugely successful artist. They were considering adopting an older child - wanting to make a difference in a child’s life . They had no children of their own. So they become a host family - at first just for a couple of weeks to Velveteen Vargas, an 11 year old Dominican girl.....
a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn.

Velvet ends up staying longer than two weeks with Ginger and Paul.
A very unsettling relationship with Velvet’s biological mother is heartbreaking— yet there are surprises throughout this story.
Velvet has a special way with horses —- she especially connects with an undisciplined- uncontrollable- ( abused)- mare called Fugly Girl.

Strong main and supporting characters .....but it’s the range of themes this book examines so well that stands out to me from shattered relationships- poverty - bullying - physical, verbal, and sexual abuse - racism - jealousy- competition- mistrust - neglect - disappointments >> capturing ( so realistic) how people hurt....

This novel makes it so clear of why people need each other when they are hurting. Connecting with others and animals who are also hurting — building a bond of closeness together is incredibly healing.

Wonderful book!!!
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,735 reviews14.1k followers
November 7, 2015
Quite a few years back there was a show on Sunday evenings called Family Classics, I remember being a young girl and watching one show about a girl who fell in love with a wild horse she named Snowfire. This began an obsession with horses that lasted many years. That is what first drew me to this book, a horse making a big difference in a girls life.

This book proved to be so much more than that. Some books grab you from the beginning, others like this one creep up on you slowly. A young eleven year old girl whose mother came to the states from the Dominican Republic, living in a less than desirable neighborhood, is offered a unique opportunity. Through a program called Fresh Air, eleven yr. Old Velvet is able to spend two weeks of the summer with a family in the country. This will bring her to Ginger, a childless woman with a troubled past, and a not very solid marriage. A white woman who falls for a black child.

So I wondered where this was going, how it would work out. It is narrated by Velvet and Ginger, occasionally with thoughts by Heather's husband and Velvet's mother, in alternating chapters. At first I wasn't sure I was getting to know the characters well enough, but by books end I did. I ended up really enjoying this, although I didn't agree with everyone's actions, these were very realistic characters, flaws and all. Despite outward colors, inside many thoughts were the same, insecurity, wanting love, forgiveness, understanding and a sense of accomplishment. Oh and yes, much about horses, riding and a very wonderful friendship between a girl and a horse.

ARC from publisher.
Profile Image for Dorie  - Cats&Books :).
991 reviews2,767 followers
August 19, 2018
**** Note this book was reviewed a few years back but as talk of Fall and school starting I wanted to highlight this book which is an excellent young adult book which would be suitable for grades 6 and up, highly recommend this book!****

This is one of the most powerful books that I’ve read in a very long time. Yes, it’s a story about a girl and a horse but that is just the tip of what is going on here. I hadn’t read Mary Gaitskill before so I was absolutely amazed at her writing. Her prose was succinct and yet fluid, I’m having trouble describing it because it was very unique. Her characters are so very believable because they are flawed and have many things that they are dealing with besides the interactions with Velvet.

The story is told from four perspectives. Velvet is an 11 year old from Crown Heights, New York, what I would refer to as the inner city, really dangerous part of town. She is a very intelligent but very abused. Her mother Sylvia doesn’t speak English and she verbally and physically abuses Velvet for even the smallest infraction. Velvet is also a good student but is afraid to call attention to herself and so she doesn’t turn in homework, etc. There are gangs of girls that she knows are dangerous and she tries to steer clear of them. Sylvia is a very tortured woman. She herself was abused and immediately fell into abusive relationships with men. She uses Velvet as a scapegoat while she showers her younger son with affection. Ginger is a white married woman, an artist and recovering alcoholic who lives in the country with her husband Paul. Paul is a teacher and seems to love Ginger but has trouble accepting the role that Ginger wants to play in Velvet’s life. He is sometimes seen as supportive and at other times he just wants to escape.

Velvet applies and is accepted into a program called Fresh Air where kids like Velvet, poor, living in bad situations, can go to live with couples who live in the country for two weeks so that they can get a chance to see another way of life. This is not really about money, as it is about a different way of dealing with ones emotions and frustrations. You can use talking and problem solving to sort out difficulties that you are dealing with. You can treat other people the way that you would want to be treated.

I feel as though I’m rambling on. The beauty of this story is that we get to see Velvet grow from a child to a young woman and how her interaction and love for horses makes a tremendous difference in her life. She sets goals and she strives to reach them. Ms. Gaitskill is an artist when it comes to projecting internal dialogue, a very difficult thing to accomplish and make it ring true. Velvet’s connection to the horses changes her in so many ways, she connects to them on a higher level, she feels that she can hear them talking to her and she talks back, verbally and through her body language.

I loved this passage, one towards the end of the book: “Still, I went to the barn. And that’s when it happened: I heard the horses talking to me like the first time I came. I don’t know if I made it up because of being so sad, but it didn’t matter – it made me feel better. “Hello, girl! We know you! Come see me! Have you got something for me? What’s the matter?” These are the things that she heard. “But Fiery Girl didn’t say anything, she didn’t have to. She just looked at me like she saw me to the bottom, and all her muscles were proud and ready. Like a Jesus heart with fire and thorns inside it.” “And I knew I am doing it for this. If somebody asked me what this was, I wouldn’t be able to tell them. But I knew, I knew.”

This is one of the best books that I’ve read this year. Read it, you’ll see what I mean.
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,164 reviews511 followers
April 13, 2017
A mare and a young girl. Two battered souls who found each other and together they conquered the world.

At first I thought I'm dropping this book as soon as some sentimental emotional manipulation of the reader shows its annoying face. I wasn't in the mood for something like "Lassy Comes Home" in horsy-language. I was in the mood for a cozy, nice, relaxing read. But no frills no fuzz, please.

What a wake-up call ...! Alas, I turned out to be so deeply involved in the story of the disadvantage 11-year-old Dominican girl from Crown Heights / Brooklyn who received an opportunity, through the Fresh Air Fund to visit a couple in upstate New York for two weeks.

A field filled with unattended emotional landmines lay waiting for Velvet, her single mother, Silvia, her brother Danté, and the couple Paul and Ginger. Somewhere in the middle, their worlds collided: the inner-city harshness against the gentle bucolic calmness. Ginger's need for children drove her to compete with Silvia for Velvet's attention and soul. Abusive Silvia could not compete with Ginger's gentle onslaught. Between these two women a young girl tried to find her way in both worlds. Velvet fell in love with Ginger's world, but knew she did not belong there; she despised the world she was coming from, but could not escape it. The complexities in all the characters made the journey through a field of deadly social- and emotional traps much more challenging.

The two weeks ended up being several years in which Velvet became a young woman. As far as she proceeded within both worlds, different landmines exploded: racism, prejudice, jealousy, ignorance, competition, language barriers, gangsterism, cultural differences, abuse, the list goes on and on. Nobody could be trusted in any of Velvet's two worlds. All the people involved were deeply flawed human beings with limited coping skills (which makes this story so much more endearing).

Even Fugly Girl, a quarter horse thoroughbred mix, had her own backstory, preventing her from trusting humans. But the moment she met Velvet, her story began a new chapter. For both young girl and horse, a new dawn broke. A magic recognition of each other's hurt and insecurities took place with no words in human language needed.

This is a tough read. The story is as much character- as plot driven. Four protagonists carry this deeply, compassionate, moving tale towards the sober, but dignified ending. A monumental climax to a tumultuous journey. No winners, no losers, apart from Velveteen and Fugly Girl. Only reality got the chance to push the reset button in the end.

Profile Image for Idarah.
464 reviews48 followers
February 7, 2017
"The Browns...loved each other, deeply, from the back of the soul, with intolerance in daily life."–National Velvet

A Booktuber I used to follow initially put this book on my radar when he rated this the best book of 2015, and surprised most of his viewers because they didn't think a story about a girl and her horse would hold his attention. He is usually drawn to gritty, dark and desperate first rate novels. That should have been an indicator that this wasn't going to be a sunny, modern adaptation of National Velvet, like I'd imagined, or even a wonderful character study like my favorite modern horse story, The Horse Whisperer.

Gaitskill's novel is sordid, violent and riddled with abusive language and graphic scenes of urban life. I think it's best you know that up front...so you're prepared. The two main characters are Velvet Vargas, an eleven-year-old Dominican-American girl from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Ginger, a sort of patron whom she meets through a summer program for disadvantaged minority children from New York inner cities. The two immediately bond, and discover that Velvet has a way with horses, even befriending a wild, abused mare called "Fugly Girl." Over time, the relationship between the three becomes closer and more complicated, especially because of Velvet's abusive mother, and her everyday life among bullies and gang violence when not visiting Ginger in upstate New York.

I really wanted to discontinue reading this about a third of the way in because it made me very uncomfortable. I'm not a person who shies away from complicated literature, but I hoped that this would be going some where. I have to add that I am also okay with character studies and plot exempt books too. This didn't do it for me. When I finally got to the end I was so underwhelmed and disappointed! . The characters always fell a tad bit flat, I never knew what their motivation was exactly, and it seemed like the train was picking up momentum only to lose steam a couple of "short" chapters later. The final part of the book felt very hurried, and that is the biggest way to irritate a reader who has already invested many hours in it. Upon listening to the final sentence, I jumped onto Audible's website and returned the audiobook, something I rarely do. At times like this, call it an endorsement if you will, I appreciate their listener guarantee. No questions asked! The only endearing quality about the book was its extensive prose on horses. That was great stuff!
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,466 reviews564 followers
June 11, 2019
[3.75] The Mare is about the complicated relationships between Velvet Vargas, an 11 year old from Brooklyn (14 by the end of the novel), her mother, her "Fresh Air family" and her horse. I haven't read "National Velvet" and am not a horse person - for me, there was just too much horsiness.

I did like seeing how Velvet's relationship to horses changed her and how Velvet changed Ginger, her host mother. Gaitskill is an excellent writer and these characters felt so real, they jumped off the page. But - the pacing never rises above a slow trot and sometimes comes to a complete standstill. I have conflicting feelings about this book - but I think it will stay with me. It deserves 4 stars.
Profile Image for Carole (Carole's Random Life).
1,721 reviews462 followers
January 20, 2016
This review can also be found at Carole's Random Life

I didn't really know much about this story before I decided to give it a try. I think I really wanted to get lost in a story that was focused on a horse. I did end up getting completely pulled into this story but I quickly found out that this story really isn't about a horse. Sure, there is a horse in the story but this is really a story about a group of people tied to one another just trying to get through life. This book was very different that I thought it would be but it ended up taking me on a fantastic journey.

This story is told from four different points of view. For Velvet, this book really is a coming of age story. Velvet starts the story as an eleven-year-old Dominican girl from a poor family. She goes to stay with a family for a couple of weeks in the summer as part of the Fresh Air fund. Ginger also learns a lot about herself during the course of the story. She is a recovering alcoholic who has never had children but decides to be a host family for the program. Paul goes through a lot of changes during the story. He is a professor and sometimes is a little more hesitant to be so involved with Velvet so much as compared to his wife. The fourth point of view comes from Velvet's mother who is a single mother trying to support her two children alone in a country where she is not able to speak the language. Velvet's mom is difficult to like but by the end of the story I felt that I understood her even if I didn't agree with how she chose to do things.

This book is beautiful in many ways and heartbreaking in others. I found at the beginning of the story that I really liked the parts of the book told by Velvet. I wanted hear her thoughts about riding horses and her attraction to that one special horse, Fiery girl. As I learned more about Velvet's life at home in the city, I found myself wanting to cheer her on and encourage her. Ginger took a while to grow on me but the more that I understood her the more I found myself able to understand why she was so determined to be a part of Velvet's life. She really did care about the girl and the connection between them felt very real to me. I loved the horses in the story and all of the people at the stable. Velvet's connection to the animals and the pride she had in riding them was beautifully written.

The four narrators of the audiobook did an amazing job. Each voice was very distinctive and really brought the characters to life. If I had been reading a paper copy of this book, these four voices would have been exactly as I would have imagined the characters to sound. The emotions of each of the characters really came through in the narration. Velvet and her mother both were very animated and their feelings were usually on the surface. Ginger and Paul were more guarded and the narrators did a wonderful job of expressing that aspect of their personality. I think that the four narrators really worked well when everything came together in the book. I really think that they all did an equally wonderful job and liked all of their styles. I never had a favorite of the group or one I didn't want to hear. I actually think that the alternating narrators really helped the different viewpoints work well in this audiobook.

I really enjoyed this story. All of the things that Velvet, her mother, Ginger, and Paul go through during the span of the story really kept my interest level high. I never felt like the story lagged at any point. The pacing was well done with parts of the book devoted to character development and others sections that moved the plot forward. There were more than a few parts of the book that made me cringe but I think that those parts really helped make the story feel more realistic. This is a book that really gets its strength from its characters. The characters in the book are all very flawed and seem very lifelike to me.

I would highly recommend this audiobook to others. I think that I got more out of the story by going the audio route because the narrators really did a superb job. This is the first book by Mary Gaitskill that I have read and I plan to look for her works in the future.

I received a review copy of this book from Blackstone Audio via Audiobook Jukebox for the purpose of providing an honest review.

Initial Thoughts
I liked this one a lot. The story was very involved with a lot of layers. The characters were all very flawed and realistic. This book was narrated by 4 individuals and the narration was superbly done. Each of the narrators really helped bring the books characters to life and tell the story.
Profile Image for Maya Lang.
Author 3 books213 followers
December 16, 2015
I stayed up until 4 a.m. reading this novel with the kind of "holy shit" urgency only the best writing can make you feel. I've since recommended it left and right and pressed it into friends' hands with an emphatic, "You HAVE to read this." Don't look up what the novel is about and don't read the summaries. If you do, you'll roll your eyes and think about all the things that could go wrong, all the reasons to be skeptical. Great writers take on what shouldn't work. They overcome our skepticism, and they do it by simply being that good. I can only imagine how many editors heard the elevator pitch for this and said, "Hmm," and nervously cleared their throats. Screw them. I loved this novel's structure, its effortless switching of voice, its uncanny ability to move between characters, and its lovely balance between inner turmoil and plot. I especially love that Mary Gaitskill made good on her real gift, which is the ability to zero in on the complicated (and often violent) dimensions of love. My only quibble was with the end, though I am mercilessly picky when it comes to endings.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,168 reviews1,642 followers
September 30, 2015
There are all sorts of things that might have gone wrong with this premise: a coming-of-age Dominican girl named Velveteen who, through the Fresh Air program, connects with a childless and privileged white woman, Ginger, and a horse named Fiery Girl.

The book could have been preachy or sentimental or reductive or too politically correct or overly clichéd, with its focus on rich and poor, black and white, human and animal. It is none of these things. Mary Gaitskill has written a thoroughbred of a novel, peopled with characters that are often combustible, alienated, and out of their depth.

Surely Ms. Gaitskill named her character with the beloved film National Velvet in mind – the story of a young girl who wins a spirited gelding and decides to train the rambunctious horse to win England’s Grand National race. But while that Velvet exists in a sort of fairy tale, this Velvet is a child of urban damage and dysfunction.

Told alternately from many perspectives – but mostly from Velvet and Ginger’s viewpoint (with a few chapters narrated by Ginger’s husband Paul and Velvet’s highly critical, abusive mother), the book is less about the mare and more about the meres – birth mothers and wannabe mothers, and self-mothering. It’s about stumbling in one’s walk through life and finding inner strength get up and face another day, and defining happiness and success on one’s own terms (for Velvet, it’s often as simple as a veiled compliment from a complicated mother who badly loves, or a text from a boy who may well be trouble but who has seeds of goodness in him).

And, because it’s written by an author who knows her craft, it’s a darn good story about a complex teen who – like many teens – is sometimes easy to love and sometimes exasperating to deal with. In sensitively tackling the nature vs. nurture dilemma – can a child who has everything going against her triumph – it raises thoughtful questions. This is not, by any means, a Seabiscuit; we don’t always cheer Velvet on, but we do feel for her. It’s a moving, ultimately optimistic, story of lives that intersect.
Profile Image for Douglas Wickard.
Author 11 books253 followers
January 14, 2016
It takes all kinds of readers! I, for one, like my books honest, raw, and full of grit. While others prefer something entirely different. Diversity. The name of the game! So, I came upon The Mare, Mary Gaitskill's newest outing with some hesitation. As an author, I READ reviews. And, in this particular case, I ALMOST didn’t download the book because the reviews weren’t stellar. Instead, what I gathered from the chorus of combined voices was…anger and prejudice and a lack of character research. Hmmm… I am so glad I didn’t listen to those reviewers. I LOVED THIS BOOK! I read it shaking my head at the amount of times my eyes teared up from the honesty written in these pages. The emotionally handicapped world we share with each other and the fate of our youth trying to make sense on a planet where adults are still trying to figure themselves out. I read this book with a new respect for the written word, for this author’s bravery in putting something out there so real and bold and courageous, not flowering up the narrative for show like so many precious books that hit the literary scene and go on to win major awards. I was actually in a restaurant when I read the last several pages of this novel and I had to stop reading at the end of each chapter just to gather myself. Tears came without warning. Something was affecting my heart, my soul, NOT my head. The characters had struck a chord and I gladly transported myself right along with them. Ah, now that is true and exquisite writing!
Profile Image for Elizabeth☮ .
1,531 reviews11 followers
January 24, 2016
There was something about this book that didn't sit well with me. I don't know if it was the style in which it is written (which made it feel longer to me); the voice of the characters; or the lack of action.

The premise of the story is Ginger and Paul are a childless couple that take part in the Fresh Air Program which matches inner-city kids with a family in the suburbs. Ginger and Paul get Velveteen Vargas (Velvet): a young girl from DR that has a mother that is spiteful and angry.

The story is told from various perspectives, but tends to focus on Velvet's and Ginger's. Less than half way through this one, I felt the story was plodding along. Nothing was really happening except a lot of brooding and silence. The characters never talk to each other. There are so many topics raised that are never addressed (Ginger's history with AA, Ginger's rediscovery of her ex-boyfriend, the money that Ginger sends to Silvia (Velvet's mother), the relationship between Paul and Ginger ....).

I think the writing here is solid and Gaitskill's voice for her characters feels real (most of the time), but I felt like there wasn't much of a story arc. I kept waiting for something important to happen, for a character to have some sort of revelation, anything that bordered on a climactic change. Even the end is a let down because everyone is in the same place as when the story began and I feel like that is not an honest portrayal of the life of a teenager (which Velvet is by the novel's end).
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,339 reviews698 followers
February 27, 2016
This story centers on Velveteen Vargas, an inner city child who becomes a Fresh Air Fund kid to a childless couple in upstate New York. The couple, Ginger and Paul, decides to host a Fresh Air Fund kid after contemplating adopting a child for their own. It’s mostly Ginger who wants a child. Paul, who is a divorced father with a teenage daughter goes along with idea, although not fully committed. Told in alternating chapters from mostly Velveteen and Ginger’s point of view, the reader learns the personal struggles and feelings of the characters. Other chapters narrated by Paul and Velveteen’s mother Silvia provide the reader with additional information, which adds tension to the read.

Ginger and Paul live close to a horse stable, and Ginger introduces Velvet to the stable and horses on Velvet’s first day with them. Velvet finds an immediate connection to the horses: feeling their feelings, understanding their needs. This is where Gaitskill shines. She makes the reader remember what it’s like to be a tweenager/teenager. Gaitskill writes Velvet with such skill: Velvet is lovable and at the same time exasperating. She’s unsure of herself, and at the same time sassy. The reader feels tenderness for Velvet and on the next page wants to ground her. Gaitskill also writes Ginger with such compassion. Ginger wants to be helpful, yet the reader sees where there is doom for Ginger.

Velvet’s mother is a troubled and struggling single mother from the Dominican Republic. She’s angry and tired. She harbors great anger towards Velvet; she’s emotionally and physically abusive to Velvet, yet she thinks she’s doing it for Velvet’s own good. She loves Velvet, but culturally does it in ways that the American reader finds horrifying.

From another GoodReads reader, I learned that Gaitskill knows horses. The authenticity of the horse/rider relationship adds to this incredible novel. Those horse lovers will appreciate this novel for that.

At the end of the novel Gaitskill thanks all the Fresh Air Fund kids who have impacted her life. Because Gaitskill has been involved with the Fund, it provides validity to the story surrounding the social workers, teachers, and relationships.

Gaitskill writes with such beautiful poetry. I love her writing in itself. This story is complicated and authentic. It’s a beautiful contemporary fiction. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for S.W. Hubbard.
Author 32 books396 followers
December 31, 2015
This is my last great book of 2015, and boy did it knock my socks off! It's got everything I love: flawed, fascinating characters, complex parent/child relationships, class conflict, great writing. This is a story of an upper middle class couple who decide to take in a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn for the summer. (Full disclosure: my family did this once and it was the hardest thing we've ever done. I'd never do it again.) In the process, the girl meets an abused horse and becomes an accomplished rider. Sound like the plot to a Lifetime movie? THE MARE overturns every maudlin, cheap sentiment that this story could have produced. Ginger, the white, upstate wife, is needy, confused, and weak. Velvet, the kid, is tough, vulnerable, and manipulative. Her mother, Silvia, is the woman you love to hate: abusive, angry, irrational; hard-working, protective, worldly. As awful as she is, we never doubt that she loves her daughter with a fierceness that just may destroy them both. And the horse! Fugly Girl is a fully developed character in the story who symbolizes the way the humans might be able to overcome their pasts. The author looks like she herself could be Ginger, yet she does an astonishingly great job of capturing, without condescension, the dynamics of Velvet's Crown Heights, Brooklyn neighborhood and her Dominican family. THE MARE is a character-driven novel in which everyone changes and grows, yet there is no fairy-tale ending (although the end is quite exciting and moving). Some may find the very short chapters and frequent point-of-view shifts distracting, but by the time I reached the end, I felt the author couldn't have told the story in any other way. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Karin Mckercher.
147 reviews10 followers
May 6, 2016
The writing is solid, easily consumed, with an approachable tone, and I enjoyed the structure, although I did find some discrepancies in facts that suggest better editing was in order. The character sketches are well-formed, but they failed to develop into real characters and remained merely sketches. The tension in the story — and there's plenty of it, between a precocious, young teenager discovering her own power and her insecure, abusive mother, or the recovering alcoholic whose new addiction becomes the bordering-on-inappropriate relationship with said precocious teen, or the adulterous husband whose ex-wife bullies his current wife whose emotional absence is her own infidelity — never becomes more than mildly uncomfortable. The Mare finishes with an underwhelming climax about 5 pages from the story's end, which, rather than a satisfying resolution, felt more like the author got tired of the story herself. The author offers so many opportunities for a conflict to become an interesting, engaging, complex story, but each opportunity feels more like a cul-de-sac than a departure into good literature.
Profile Image for Robin.
87 reviews9 followers
March 1, 2016
So, this is loosely based on National Velvet, I think. Except Velvet is Velveteen, and she's in the Fresh Air Fund program where urban and often underprivileged children from NYC are hosted by families from upstate NY during the summer where they can have rural outdoor experiences like swimming and hiking. As an outdoorsy type person I always thought the Fresh Air Fund sounded glorious because spending a summer on hot concrete and asphalt sidewalks and in steamy brick apartment buildings is no contest to drinking lemonade under a breezy, shady tree.

My idealization aside, the Fresh Air Fund can also be an opportunity for a kid to be on the losing side of classism and racism. Velvet gets an overt serving of "these kids need a good example of work ethic" on the bus to her first visit to Ginger (yes, from Black Beauty) and Paul, her host family who live near Poughkeepsie, next door to a riding stable. What follows is less of a horse and girl bonding story than a framework for social friction, both overt and subtle.

I liked the idea of it and I always enjoy novels told from a shifting point of view. But, I wish the characters weren't literary stereotypes. Ginger is the neurotic, myopic, middle aged white woman who is unable to think beyond her own needs, Velveteen is the angry, tough city kid with a gentle heart underneath who thinks like a poet. It's Eat Pray Love or anything by Barbara Kingsolver meets Outsiders/West Side Story/Stand and Deliver/etc. The horse has a champion horse heart even though she kicks and bites with rage from abuse. Velvet's mom Silvia is the illiterate immigrant who is additionally full of rage because of her shitty life and beats her child because she loves her. There's even a weird horse lady.

I just didn't like a lot of the writing. Some of Velvet and Silvia's inner thoughts read like bad slam poetry. Ginger is insufferable. (I listened to the audio book and I think her voice actress thought she was insufferable too because she pretty much pouted and whined all of Ginger's parts.) Paul is an irritating mansplainer who deserves Ginger.

The class and racial tension is done pretty well, and the actual horse and girl bonding is too, so The Mare gets a 3 instead of a 2. But unfortunately all the good things are diluted by a plodding storyline where plot developments are meted out at a glacial pace in between long passages of awkward thought poetry.
Profile Image for Sarah.
277 reviews27 followers
December 28, 2015
"National Velvet" was the inspiration for “The Mare,” but don’t expect a modern rewrite of the novel that became a beloved Elizabeth Taylor movie. There are several major differences between the two versions: one is a fairy tale and one is not, one is for children and one is not, one has Velvet Brown and one has a brown Velvet.

In "The Mare,"Ginger brings improvised, 11-year-old, Dominican immigrant Velvet to stay with her for two weeks one summer. The pairing is done through a non-profit agency. The friendship continues for several years. During that time Velvet becomes a rider while being torn between her tough love mother, Silvia, and the dream world Ginger. The book is told in alternating, often short chapters, told primarily by Ginger, Velvet and Silvia.

While reading this book I kept thinking, "You can't save someone else if you can't save yourself.” This is a gritty, melancholy book full of tough and failed love that explores the gap between the inner-city poor and the suburban upper income set. The only love that seems real is what exists between the girl and her horse. I'm not sure if Mary Gaitskill is a horsewoman, but she has a definite handle on communication between horse and person. The "love" between the two is acceptance, earned respect and communication; a true partnership. Horse and rider moving as one is truly exhilarating; a taste of freedom and invincibility.
Profile Image for jo.
613 reviews488 followers
Shelved as 'it-s-not-you-it-s-me'
August 20, 2017
hmmm nope.

stereotypical depiction of latinx girl.

stereotypical and offensive description of latinx family.

stereotypical depiction of wealthy white woman who tries to do good.

characters sketched with massively broad strokes.

endless going on.


Profile Image for Samantha.
Author 11 books58 followers
May 14, 2017
I've been reading Mary Gaitskill for years, but I'm stuck wondering where this Dangerous Minds/Free Willy mashup came from. And why the hell so many people liked it.

Craft-wise: It's a long book that didn't need to be a long book. The whole thing may have actually functioned better as a short story, as it otherwise drolly trots along (let's see how many horse puns I can get in here). It's a very trope-y story whose metaphors and parallels don't need to be spoon-fed to its readers. The switching POVs get annoying and ineffective, after a while, especially when it increases from just Ginger's and Velvet's POVs to include other characters rearing their heads, as well. This style works well in other books, but it comes off here as a lazy way of articulating characters' thoughts. The characters themselves are flat, especially Ginger and Paul's relationship. Ginger is an unemployed artist who doesn't ever really....make art, and I don't know why this is okay and never addressed, or how they afford to be saddled with a kid on Paul's teacher salary. Paul is kind of an asshole, but a perceptive one, at times. Oddly enough, I think Gaitskill excels most at capturing Velvet's perspective.

I'm not sure what to make of the white savior narrative. On the one hand, it seems more self-aware than others of its kind, enlightened to the problematic aspects of white people's obsession with thinking they can give underprivileged kids a better life (and pat themselves on the back) with some horse lessons and a new Gap outfit. Ginger, the white protagonist, certainly doesn't come off looking like a hero through most of the book, as is typically the aim of these stories. On the other hand, the narrative is still *there* in all it's 400-page glory, and there's a mostly surface-level confrontation of the race and class inequalities, and even its self-awareness can't stop me from screaming, "WHY DO WHITE PEOPLE KEEP WRITING THESE STORIES?" The ending made it harder for me to give the book the benefit of the doubt, like I'd been doing up to that point. Dwight Garner's NYT review said this may be the first Gaitskill book that can be read in book clubs, and I can't say I disagree.

Even in 400-plus pages, this book didn't take the high jumps when it came to character development, plot, and its own self-examination. I'm aware that there are many autobiographical elements to it, having read Gaitskill's essay on taking in underprivileged kids herself. But maybe she can go write a Secretary sequel, instead?

Four horse puns. You're welcome.
Profile Image for Sarah Tittle.
183 reviews6 followers
May 13, 2016
Like many women, I was a 20-year-old New Yorker when I read Gaitskill's first collection, Bad Behavior. I loved its edgy honesty as well as Gaitskill's ability to mine the beauty of harsh realities. But that was decades ago. I'm older and so is she. A lot of readers have been disappointed with The Mare--where's that bad behavior? But what she's done here is much wiser--if not quite as successful. I won't go into the plot, except to say that I loved the story and think it's one worth telling, especially these days when white privilege and systemic racism are being called out all over the place. People who think they are enlightened are discovering that, ahem, they are actually not. Gaitskill dips into the life of a Dominican teen living with her mother and brother in a shitty apartment in a shitty part of Brooklyn. I'm no expert but I think she accurately evokes Velvet's home life--its insecurity, her complicated relationship with her mother, her frenemies and her crushes. And I love how Velvet grows from tween to full-blown young woman--a transition that is hard enough without the added confusions of shuttling between two really different worlds. Also, Gaitskill has created a sympathetic portrait in Ginger, a bad girl who's grown up and trying to make it in an adult world. Both protagonists are delightfully complex, flawed, and sympathetic. Which leads me to my primary criticism of this novel. Gaitskill starts out alternating p.o.v. between Ginger and Velvet. But then we get Ginger's husband, and Velvet's mother. Velvet's brother and even her trainer. Every time I saw a chapter headed with someone's name besides Ginger and Velvet, I felt disappointed, because I just didn't care what they had to say. Their voices weren't interesting, nor were the observations helpful.
I think this would make an excellent young adult novel. There's a tiny bit of "inappropriate" behavior, but nothing that today's teens haven't heard before. Worth reading, discussing, thinking about. The Mare might not be as edgy as Gaitskill's previous work, but I wholeheartedly applaud what she's doing here, and am interested to see where she goes next.
Profile Image for Janet.
855 reviews54 followers
May 20, 2016
I loved this story about a Dominican girl trying to make her way in the world.

When inner city pre-teen Velvet gets an opportunity to go to Fresh Air camp and ride horses, we just know that her white liberal benefactor Ginger is going to make a big difference in her life. But little do we know what overwhelming struggles she will face with poverty, sub-par schools, peer pressure, and a mother who loves her a little too fiercely. It’s hard for us to understand how a mother can love her daughter and so abuse her at the same time.

Gaitskill does a masterful job of presenting this story in all its complexity and at the end I felt conflicted, as real life is apt to make one feel. The characters were so fully formed and believable that I lived with them for a time. Throughout I kept thinking of the New Jersey school initiative where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg gifted $100 million to fix failing schools and wound up learning huge lessons about the necessity to win the support of the community instead. As well meaning as we are, the disenfranchised don’t want to be “done to”, they want to be given the tools to “dig themselves out”.

Kudos to Blackstone audio and the narrators for bringing this so convincingly to life.
Profile Image for Peter.
89 reviews47 followers
June 22, 2018
The Mare is an enthralling book that takes us inside the lives of a white middle class family in the suburbs of New York and a Dominican family living in the inner city. While I can’t speak to the accuracy of Gaitskill’s characterization of the people of color, she let me into the minds of these women in a way I didn’t expect. As a reader that normally avoids books that focus on what characters are thinking, I still enjoyed The Mare, as the author deftly advanced the narrative, while shifting point of view, and keeping me curious about where the maelstrom of teenage emotions and a woman yearning to be a mother would lead. The horses as theme and vehicle for growth worked for me and gave the story a more primal emotional tone than I think would otherwise be the case.
Profile Image for Aisha.
7 reviews1 follower
August 23, 2015
Let me just start by saying, I am a fan of Mary Gaitskill. Her prose is absolutely, stunningly poetic. She can make the mundane, ordinary and everyday seem beautiful, delicate and something to be treasured. Or maybe it's more appropriate to say her words remind me that it SHOULD be.

I enjoyed Veronica but in the same breath I would never re-read it nor would I ever recommend it to anyone else. In Veronica she "took it too far", so to speak. I'm not even sure that it would be much of an exaggeration to say that nearly every sentence was a simile or metaphor. At many times the story was lost in this flowery language.

The Mare was the work I've been waiting for from Gaitskill since I first stumbled upon her writing and even still I was not ready. To call this book "powerful" almost verges on understatement.

This is a story about people. This is a story about how sometimes the people who you care about the most can sometimes be the hardest to understand. This is a story about frustrating patience, undying motivation and triumph.

I devoured this book. At first, maybe it was just because of the short chapters and the fact that they alternated between the view points of the different characters (something Murakami does often, and that I love). Very soon it was because I cared about Velvet (the main character from inner city Brooklyn). I saw she could find strength (in the face of massive adversity), I believed she could overcome and I wanted to see it happen.

Gaitskill has an incredible talent for writing internal dialogue. I could not relate to a single experience any of these characters had or were having but it didn't matter because I could relate to the feelings. The angst and the anger, the self-hatred and confusion ... The difficult parts of being human. She captured something very real here and I was moved.

My one criticism, if I'm being nit-picky, is that there was some inconsistency in terms of the grammar. I understand that Gaitskill was trying to make the voice of the characters come through but she didn't commit and so it didn't entirely make sense. Velvet would use quotation marks in one chapter and not the next, or use phrases like "woked up" but other times would write in highly advanced English. Velvet's mother could barely speak English, and was said to be illiterate, yet there were a few chapters written from her perspective and those had perfect grammar.

Anyway, to be fair, I read the Advanced Reader's Edition (a bound uncorrected proof) so this issue might not exist when the book is released to the general public. Even if it's not corrected this is a fantastic novel and if you like Mary Gaitskill it's definitely a must-read.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,275 reviews558 followers
December 10, 2015
Day by day, month by month, year gone to another year story told in the 1st person consciousness. As the trailer states it's centered around a city girl and her "away" from the city fostering mother/family. All the characters are flawed but emotive. And the connections are made within the catalyst of a feisty female horse.

There is clash of race, language, economics, style, and manners. Primarily manners and perceptions of self-identity and of mobility differ immensely within the two "homes".

It's a long book. For me it crystalized the characters in their thoughts upon their own realities well. But in doing so, it was redundant and oftentimes beyond sad.

I could have given this a 4 star at the 3/4ths point. But I found the ending rather pat and way too fictional for the depth of the differences in the story.

Also, I have to add. You will like this book much, much more than I do if you have affinity for the care, training, and cognition to connection with horses. This I absolutely lack.

Almost forgot- there were a couple points in this book that I almost ditched it- I must admit it. It was because the author's prejudice and political judgment was gratuitously vile, and on occasion expressed with vitriol included as a "known" fact- within the fiction she created. Really it was obnoxious to generalize in such a condescending manner to the "rich" and despicable Republicans. I think she needs to get a mare of her own or some such bridging connection in her own life.
Profile Image for Rachel.
204 reviews2 followers
June 22, 2016
I see some merit in this book, but it just wasn't for me. I found the plot plodding, the characters superficial, the characters' conflicts repetitive, the ending anticlimactic. And I had no interest in anything to do with horses.
Profile Image for Kate.
Author 15 books822 followers
October 14, 2018
One summer, a Dominican girl named Velvet is sent to live with a white couple who are considering adoption. Ginger is concerned about being a "white savior" but in introducing Velvet to horses, she finds a deep need inside her being filled. Velvet connects to Fugly Girl, a mare who has been abused and lashes out dangerously. Ginger and Velvet develop a relationship that is tested when Velvet returns home to her abusive mother, but which perseveres over time.

I couldn't help but notice that this novel follows my horse novel formula. The race dynamics in this story were really complex and I was glad that Ginger was self-aware of what she was doing (probably because the author also participates in the Fresh Air Fund and has experienced some of this herself). There was also some interesting racism with the mother and Velvet as Velvet is much darker-skinned than either of her parents. There wasn't as much of the horses in this story as I had hoped, but there was enough to keep me mostly satisfied. It's more that this was about Velvet's split life between her inner city school and abusive home and her life "outside" and the inner conflicts that arise. This was also about Ginger, who struggles as a recovering addict and as a childless adult. I wish the novel had been formatted a little differently, as there aren't really chapters and each section is titled by the POV character, which rotates between Velvet, Ginger, Paul (Ginger's husband), Silvia (Velvet's mom), and I think a few other characters. Overall, however, it was a highly realistic look at how programs like the Fresh Air Fund can make a difference.
Profile Image for Mark.
1,373 reviews104 followers
August 26, 2016
An upper middle class couple take in a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn for the summer. Velvet is eleven years old. She is Dominican and has led a difficult life, in the inner-city. At her new summer home, there is a horse farm, across the road and Velvet is introduced to the horses there and a bond begins to form and it changes the young girl's life.

I like Gaitskill's writing and I enjoyed the early parts of the story, as she presents these characters. I sometimes have problems with "angst" in these family dramas. They begin to gnaw away at me, chipping away at my interest and my nerves. There was some of that here but there is also much to admire, so if this rings any of your bells give it a try.
Profile Image for Bookslut.
629 reviews
June 14, 2016
Compulsively readable, but hard on the soul. This was in the running for the Pulitzer this year, and I think it would've made an excellent choice. It felt very authentic and realistic. I tend to avoid books that are emotionally wringing, especially if they're about children, and I can see why--I've felt sad all the days I read this book, though not enough that I didn't pick it up and pick it up. It is a great work for educating readers how easily inner city kids are lost, even if they are good kids, and how early that happens. It made me fear, even in our cushy suburban life, for the safety and happiness of our little girls. Powerful read.
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