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On Swift Horses

3.17  ·  Rating details ·  725 ratings  ·  151 reviews
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Named a Most Anticipated Book of Fall by The New York Times, Real Simple, Electric Literature, and more.

“Cinematic . . . The spaces she creates for her characters . . . have the aura of realms.” —The New York Times Book Review

A lonely newlywed and her wayward brother-in-law follow divergent and dangerous paths through the p
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published November 5th 2019 by Riverhead Books
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Average rating 3.17  · 
Rating details
 ·  725 ratings  ·  151 reviews

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Jul 20, 2019 rated it really liked it

“What a thing is progress.”

set in 1956 in the american west, this is a beautifully written book about two characters at odds with the postwar values of a country in the process of redefining itself, promising new opportunities that neither of them want.

muriel is 21 years old, a newlywed and recent arrival to san diego. her progressive, independent mother has recently died, leaving muriel their house in kansas. some months later, upon their discharge from the navy, her frequently
Angela M
Nov 30, 2019 rated it liked it
If it wasn’t for the amazing prose, I would have given up on this. It’s pretty slow moving for a novel that isn’t very long and I couldn’t really feel an emotional connection with one of the main characters, Muriel, who always felt at a distance to me. But the atmosphere in these places in this time was so well written, I kept reading.

It’s 1956 , Muriel is 21 , married to Lee and they leave Kansas for California with Lee’s younger brother Julius. Muriel bonds with Julius and is disappointed whe
Dec 21, 2019 rated it did not like it
On Swift Horses is a book that seemed like it was going to be tailor-made for me; queer historical fiction and horses are two things I'm always drawn to.  But this unfortunately ended up being a slog, to the point where I forced myself to read the last 200 pages in one sitting because I never wanted to pick this up once I put it down.  (And I would have actually DNF'd this - I know, I never DNF books, but I swear to god I would have made an exception, if I hadn't been assigned to review this for ...more
Roman Clodia
An interesting evocation of 1950s America and two characters wanting more from life than they're 'supposed' to want - but the writing style which is all 'tell', very little 'show' and hardly any dialogue prevented me from getting as involved as I should have. Being 'told' with little being dramatised leaves the story flat and I felt held at a distance. I wanted more direct contact with the characters but the writing technique just didn't allow it. Lots of thoughtful stuff here about gambling and ...more
Anna Luce
DNF 30%

On Swift Horses has had an almost soporific effect on me.
Through repeated attempts I managed to read a few paragraphs, at times a few pages even. Soon however my eyes would glaze over as my mind wandered away from the page's content.
Having read and enjoyed many so called 'slow-burners' (or bricks such as Middlemarch) I'm not one to turn away from stories that have a more leisurely pace...but there has to be something (be it the characters, the story's setting, or the writing itself) that
Christopher Alonso
Jun 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: lgbtq, favorites
I can't remember the last time I read a debut novel where the writing was as self-assured as ON SWIFT HORSES. The book follows Muriel and her brother-in-law Julius through alternating points of view, both informing each other in different ways. Muriel becomes increasingly interested in gambling on horse racing, and Julius, a card cheat, tries his best to better his own life until he meets another gambler, Henry.
ON SWIFT HORSES is about so many things: love and secrets, gambling and desires, and
On Swift Horses is a historical fiction novel, taking place in in the Western United States in the 1950s. The three central characters⁠—Muriel, Lee, and Julius are all in the midst of change. Muriel married Lee and moved from Kansas to San Diego with him and is learning about the horse races and how to continue to grow and mature after her mother's death. Lee wants to move to the suburbs and start a family, but Muriel has different plans. Lee's brother, Julius, is a staple in both Muriel and ...more
Oct 11, 2019 rated it it was ok
In the past, I’ve described books as slow burns. What I usually mean is that, as I read them, I can get a sense of a lit fuse at the center of the book. There are little sparks, gathering speed, usually towards some kind of dramatic explosion. The tension draws me along because I want to see what happens when the tinder lights. Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses never really lights my fire. This is a slow book. It’s also a very subtle one. In this novel, two LGBT characters carefully navigate thei ...more
Nov 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fascinating
I have experienced this stunning novel and enjoyed both readings through it.
I didn't feel as if I could do it justice with just one.

Like a fine bottle of wine, you first swirl and smell it, take in the scent, subtle hues and tones of it, then you sip and savor it.
This is not a novel to guzzle, but one to savor, slowly, taking in the essence of it.

However, like a Van Gogh painting, it will either appeal to potential readers or, they will not like it. I believe, like wines and paintings, enjoym
Bryn Greenwood
Dec 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
There are still a few days of the year left, but I’m calling it: this is my favorite book from 2019. I had a profound sense that I *knew* these people, even when I didn’t fully understand them, in the same way that the people you grew up around can still contain mysteries. I loved especially that sense of displacement of characters from the western high plains moving out to California. Taken away from those open spaces, they seem never to feel fully on solid ground & are unable to let go of Kans ...more
Jillian Doherty
Mar 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Normally I devour good books - this one though I needed to savor. Even if i wanted to absorb it more quickly I'd have lost the power of so many harrowing, lustful, devastating, life-changing moments you simple need to luxuriate in.

Plus I love a story with broken, yet unapologetic characters.
The venn diagram of characters: Muriel, her mother's story, Lee, Sandra are one world - Julius and Henry are another, but as Muriel and Julius' paths cross it's like lightning flashing.

I wouldn't want to s
Nov 03, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: arc-s
"I guess we all take what paradise is offered us."

Reading this book felt like a luxurious treat - the writing pulls you in and evelops you like a warm hug. It is beautiful, it doesn't over explain how the characters feel and instead lets you feel their hopes, loves and losses with them. It is a poignant and powerful book about the fight to live as you are in this world.

Set in 1957 America, this novel follows the lives of Julius and Muriel, related by marriage, as they take risks, learn to love
Celia Laskey
Nov 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Easily one of my favorite books of the last few years. I'm so excited it's finally out so I can talk about it with all my friends! First, the writing: so self-assured and gorgeous and evocative. I mean, the scene where Muriel tries an olive for the first time? I was there, putting an olive in my mouth and tasting it like I never had before. The characters: incredibly complex, and the way they're characterized is very subtle and effective. They're not always aware of what's going on in their own ...more
Jennifer Myers
Feb 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
The first descriptive words that come to mind are: tender - soul seeking - lyrical

This story alternates chapters between Muriel, a 1950s young woman who is married but works two jobs outside the house (with her husband Lee) and Julius, Lee’s brother. Lee and Muriel make plans to put down roots and have Julius live with them, but Julius can’t commit and wanders the streets of Las Vegas, Tijuana and the southwest looking for Henry, the man with whom he felt alive.

Muriel and Julius both have secre
Sep 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Hands down one of the best books of 2019. This book captures human emotion in such a stunningly raw way, painting beautiful, haunting scenes that will stay with you long after the book is finished. Julius’ desperate search for his lost love Henry is interspersed with images of a post-war country in a time of great change, where hotels advertise nuclear bomb tests in the desert to tourists and the interstate system is just rising up to transform the way we operate. Juxtaposed with Julius is the s ...more
Afton Montgomery
Jul 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
On the surface, this is a novel centered on gambling: horses, cards, horses again. Below the surface, though, it's about the ways that we gamble with ourselves-- and what's addictive in that. With sublime dexterity and perfect subtlety, Pufahl explores the pieces of her two characters-- a newlywed and her brother-in-law-- that they hide, the pieces that they trade and bury, the pieces that become their masks. On Swift Horses is the queer underbelly story of the American West that I didn't know I ...more
Nov 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: queer
The downfall of an incredible debut novel- there are no other books by the author to seek out. What does one do? As I finished this novel, I thought about starting over. Perhaps, skimming. Perhaps, picking random pages. The writing, the characters, the story- incredible! I went into this one with very little expectations. A wonderful experience.
Helen Carolan
Jan 10, 2020 rated it it was ok
I honestly thought I'd lose the will to live while reading this one. Slow and going nowhere. Muriel works in a bar and picks up racing tips which she then uses at the local track. Meanwhile her brother in law Julius turns his knowledge of cheating to weed out other cheaters in Las Vegas. A real yawn fest. ...more
Whitney Gaston
Nov 29, 2019 rated it did not like it
I did not finish this book. I tried to read for my bookclub, but it just didn’t happen. I read over half the story and I just wasn’t invested or captured enlightened to keep going.
Robert Meyer
Jan 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
For the past several years, I chose to forego writing about read books as time constraints imposed this whittling. But, I recently read this book and agree with other writers that this author is someone who cannot be ignored.

Writing about ordinary people’s lives is not easy. Making ordinary into interesting is an art. To make ordinary’s interesting into romantic is even more impressive. Pufahl does that.

With Steinbeck-like agility, she follows a post-Korean War couple’s journey from plain Plain
Jan 31, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5, rounded up.

Although I ultimately liked this debut novel, there were a lot of 'issues' I had with it also, the primary one being that one is never quite sure through much of it what is motivating the characters, or what it is they are after (to be fair, the female protagonist probably ISN'T aware of what she wants till the final chapters, but still...). Individual scenes often crackle with energy and an almost noirish style, and the prose throughout is quite good. But oftentimes, scenes just
Anton Prosser
Dec 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is an achingly beautiful book about finding your way to love.
Fizah(Books tales by me)
Feb 04, 2020 marked it as dnf
Shelves: 2020-read
Won this ARC in a giveaway...Read 50 pages but it isn't my cup of tea... ...more
Dec 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I picked up this book because I saw it reviewed by @whatstevereads. When I saw it was blurbed on the back by Anthony Marra and Justin Torres, I knew I had to check it out.

In 1950s America, the soldiers have returned home from World War II and try to establish life in a changed country. The economy is growing as the Cold War is escalating. People are building ranch homes in the desert and sipping cocktails while watching the government detonate nuclear bombs. Muriel is a newly-married woman who
Jan 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
I found this book fascinating. It is an unusually well-written, rather poetic novel. The setting is well drawn and the characters are multi-dimensional and interesting. I couldn't stop reading it and stayed up late to finish it. Highly recommended. ...more
Oct 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction-for-fun
I'm so glad to have been sent an advance copy of this book! It's a little outside what I usually read, but it was great foray into a slightly different genre. The thing that I probably loved most about this was that I could smell the settings and feel the seasons. The descriptions of the environment are so evocative and I really felt like I was there. The queerness felt both loving and honest as well. I'm gonna hide one content warning for spoilers but would definitely recommend.
Read if you like
Sara Klem
Jan 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I don't really want to give this book a star rating because I can't decide. The writing is so dreamy, but in a way that's really fine-tuned rather than being flowery (and it taught me a lot of new words). I'm genuinely envious of Shannon Pufahl's talent. You feel like you're in a hazy Western film the entire time. The story itself is quietly heartbreaking and really beautiful.

That said, I found myself skimming sections because there are a LOT of meandering descriptions of dreams (which, tbh, I
This was a difficult book for me. The repetitive sentence's an example on a page about Julius: "The next morning, after work, he plays the seven card table...He tries again at Binions...He sits for ten minutes at the Lucky Strike...He walks several blocks from downtown." I just opened to a random page and found this passage. Only one sentence broke the pattern and the pattern began to bore me. The same thing happens several pages later, but now we're getting Muriel's perspective ...more
May 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: queer-lit
This is the kind of book that entered my bones as a reader, seeping in from day one. It was almost like the first time I watched the opening scene of Brokeback Mountain, with the music and shot of the truck's headlights, and I knew before seeing any characters that it was going to be a great film.

I've tried not to reveal too much plot here. The story concerns a young couple, Muriel and Lee who have moved from Kansas to San Diego, and are awaiting the arrival of Lee's brother Julius. Both the bro
Marisa Turpin
Nov 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
I finished this book last night. It took a little longer for me to read than usual even though it was only 306 pages long. I found myself stopping to look up words, such as "aporetic," "penumbral," "consanguinity." I always felt like I had an impressive vocabulary, but Ms. Pufahl definitely has me beat! I often complain when fish tastes "too fishy," and at times I did find this book too "wordy." The author could definitely go on and on about things in detail. (Sometimes I was enamored and quite ...more
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