What happens when you mix a philosophical dog with a dying wife and mother, a bitter custody battle and race car driving? In the case of The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, you get a New York Times best seller that is slated to become a movie starring Grey’s Anatomy‘s Patrick Dempsey, a Hollywood actor who wears a race car driver’s helmet when not playing a doctor on TV.
Part Lassie, part Love Story, part Kramer vs. Kramer, in The Art of Racing in the Rain, author Garth Stein pulls on his readers’ heartstrings with the finesse of Yo-Yo Ma, sounding all the right notes to keep the pages turning, tears flowing and the cash register ringing. Not surprisingly, the trade paperback edition of The Art of Racing in the Rain had staked a coveted spot on the New York Times Best Seller List for 47 weeks as of last week.
Having lost my own dog exactly one year ago (well actually he died, but lost sounds more temporary and hopeful), I was a prime candidate to be charmed by the adorability of a dog named Enzo, an insightful mutt who waxes philosophically while narrating the events of the life of his human companion Denny Swift, a mundane existence that abruptly turns into a soap opera when Denny’s wife is diagnosed with terminal cancer and dies. An aspiring race car driver who works at a BMW repair shop, Denny is forced to battle his wife’s rich and evil parents for custody of his own daughter after he is falsely accused of rape by a seductive teenage niece-in-law.
While reading The Art of Racing in the Rain, you’ll find yourself vicariously riding along with Denny on his emotional roller coaster as he plays the beleaguered underdog David to his pit bull in-laws’ Goliath-that is, provided you are able to suspend your disbelief about numerous plot elements and contrivances employed by author Garth Stein, the dog-as-philosophical-narrator being the least of them. For instance, what terminally ill woman would choose to live the last months of her life with her heartless, manipulative parents instead of her loyal and loving husband, even if it meant having to spend part of her day with paid caregivers? And what district attorney would give credence to a delayed rape accusation that conveniently coincides with a civil custody suit, a claim with no physical evidence? Hello? I’ve watched enough Law and Order to know you need to have the goods before you bring charges.
I also had a quibble with the author’s tendency to dumb his book down in an obvious attempt to ensure even the dullest reader would catch his cute literary devices. The characters’ names were as transparent as Glad Wrap: a race car driver named Denny Swift, his wife, Eve, who is at the evening of her life. I won’t delve too much into the dog’s name, Enzo, here, but at the end of the book you’ll shake your head and ask why author Stein couldn’t have given the readers of The Art of Racing in the Rain a tad more credit.
Still, many of Enzo’s insights sparked 20-watt light bulb moments for me. I enjoyed reading about Enzo’s emotional adjustment to Denny meeting and falling in love with Eve because five years ago I entered the life of my now-husband’s chow-Akita mutt, Slate, and remember wondering at the time what he thought of my disturbing his cozy dyad.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is also filled with great humor, including a funny self-loathing riff by Enzo: “I love those crackers the best. It’s the salt and the butter in the crackers mixed with the fat in the peanuts. I tried to eat slowly, savoring each bite, but I was too hungry and swallowed them so quickly I barely got to taste them. What a shame to waste something so wonderful on a dog. Sometimes I hate what I am so much.”
Indeed, the many offhand musings by Enzo sprinkled throughout the book will prompt frequent wry smiles and occasional chuckles, such as Enzo’s observation of a family gathering in which “a certain sense of lawlessness pervaded the house, what with children staying awake late into the night and adults sleeping at all hours of the day like dogs” or his comical misunderstanding of children being off from school in February: “It is important for United States citizens to celebrate the birthdays of their greatest presidents, so all the schools were closed for a week.”
While The Art of Racing in the Rain will never be mistaken for great literature, it is a perfect beach read and semi-guilty pleasure, especially if you’re one of those enlightened people who likes to anthropomorphise her pets.
The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel, by Garth Stein, Harper Paperbacks