Review: Mary Gaitskill’s Heartwarming Novel of Awkward Racial Tension

By Tara Merrigan

The Mare

 By Mary Gaitskill

 Pantheon     448 pages

On its surface, Mary Gaitskill’s latest novel The Mare presents a heartwarming story: with the help of a nice middle-class white lady, a girl from an underprivileged background learns to ride horses, tames a particularly temperamental mare, and in the process, finds a sense of self-worth. But because this is a book written by Mary Gaitskill—a woman who was once the “downtown princess of darkness”—The Mare is not as saccharine as this gloss makes it seem. No, at its best moments, the novel is a tale of how white guilt, an addictive personality, and the unquenchable need for love intermingle to create messy human relationships.

The novel finds its center in the relationship between two characters: Ginger, the aforementioned nice middle-class white lady, and Velvet, a Dominican-American girl from Brooklyn. Ginger and Velvet, the book’s main narrators, meet through the Fresh Air Fund, a program that matches city kids with well-off families from upstate New York so that the kids can spend a few weeks of their summer vacation in the country. It’s a noble, if politically thorny, program that walks a thin line between well-intentioned help and problematic race relations. The Fresh Air Fund’s brochure is a bit heavy handed, with its pictures of white adults hugging African-American children.

 “It was sentimental and flattering to white vanity and manipulative as hell,” says Ginger, a failed artist and successfully (for the most part) sober alcoholic. “It was also irresistible. It made you think the beautiful sentiments you pretend to believe in really might be true.” And finding out if those “beautiful sentiments” are indeed true is exactly what this book sets out to do. 

After their Fresh Air Fund time is over, Ginger and Velvet continue their unusual relationship (they are neither friends nor mentor and mentee; their age difference is too great for the former and Ginger is too lost for the latter) and the book follows its development over several years as the two become increasingly entangled. When Velvet is in Brooklyn, Ginger helps the girl with her homework, most of which she doesn’t turn in. And Velvet visits Ginger’s home upstate on weekends and school breaks to ride an abused, and therefore volatile, mare called Fugly Girl or Fiery Girl depending on whom you ask.

Velvet talks to the horse and it sometimes answers her back; the bond between the two feels natural to Velvet as both have been treated poorly. (Velvet is abused by her mother in various ways: a belt, a shoe, a slap.) However, it should be said that Velvet and Fiery Girl are not equals in their relationship until the very end, and perhaps not even then—the horse throws Velvet midway through the book, but allows the girl to safely ride her by the book’s finish. Despite the girl’s name, this book is nowhere near as straightforward as National Velvet.            

What much of Mary Gaitskill’s previous fiction does is flip the script on everyday nice things and coax out the darkness that very well could exist there. In “A Romantic Weekend,” a story from her 1988 debut collection Bad Behavior, Gaitskill takes a romantic getaway and morphs into something raw and difficult—an S&M-type interaction between a hapless and hopeless woman and a cruel married man. And in “The Other Place,” a much more recent story, a father reflects on what he’s passed on to his son: violent impulses. But what makes these stories so powerful is that they never quite fully depict the brutality they suggest. They hold the reader in suspense, waiting for the married man to beat the woman and the father to kill a female stranger, but the terrible events never actually happen.

The Mare is not as intense as “A Romantic Weekend” or “The Other Place.” This is perhaps a function of form; a literary novel is less about suspense and more about exploration, and it is much harder to suspend a reader for four hundred pages than for twenty. But perhaps this is also because The Mare doesn’t solely live in the deepest, darkest crevices. Yes, at some moments, the story depicts white guilt, addiction, and familial abuse. But many other moments are much softer: Velvet and Ginger go on walks, Velvet bonds with horses, Ginger paints. And its climactic moment is much less terrifying than the climactic moment in “The Other Place.” I won’t give away everything, but it has to do with whether Velvet’s mother will support her horse riding.  

What is more suspenseful in The Mare is the thin line Mary Gaitskill walks between stereotypical and authentic portrayal. Ginger, the aging artist, feels much like a Gaitskill stand-in, and Velvet is rendered fairly well, but Velvet’s underprivileged Brooklyn world presents more of a challenge for Gaitskill. It’s at times hard to fully believe in her depiction, because Velvet’s mother, brother and friends are more types than three-dimensional characters. Velvet’s mother, Silvia Vargas, is a particularly flat character; most of her time on the page is spent ranting and hitting. Her motivations for this behavior—she is disenfranchised, she is single—seem too typical. The portrayal seems more the product of failed grasping than true understanding. One may argue that the beauty of fiction is that it allows us to attempt to render someone different from us and enter his or her headspace. But empathy can only bring an author so far.

Because of this shortcoming, Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare is likely to be a divisive book. Those who are keen on racial politics may find this book distasteful. But perhaps that’s the point. A book that grapples with white guilt—because this book, though called The Mare, is more about that than it is about horses—should make one feel uncomfortable.

Some may wonder if Mary Gaitskill, now that she’s older and living out in the country, has lost her edge, because in an explicit sense, this book is nowhere near as dark as some of her previous stories. But that edginess is still there—it’s lurking just beneath in The Mare—because what else would drive Gaitskill to take on a subject as barbed as white guilt?

Tara Merrigan has written articles for the websties of The Rumpus, The Baffler, and T Magazine.  She is a 2013 graduate of Harvard College, where she studied literary and intellectual history.