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Horse Heaven Hardcover – April 4, 2000


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (April 4, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037540600X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375406003
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (142 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #824,542 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

It takes a great deal of faith to gear a novel this horse-besotted to the general public. Horse love is one of those things either you get or you don't, and for the vast majority of the populace, horse stories tend to read like porn written for 13-year-old girls. The good news, then, is that while a love of all things equine is not a prerequisite for enjoying Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven, a love of human perversity is. Racing, after all, is at worst a dangerous, asset-devouring folly and at best an anachronism, as one of her horse trainers notes:
The Industry Leaders had made it their personal mission to bring horse racing to the attention of the general public, with the NFL as their model and television as their medium of choice, which was fine with Farley, though his own view was that horse racing out at the track, newspaper reading, still photography, placing bets in person, and writing thank-you notes by hand were all related activities, and football, ESPN, video, on-line betting, and not writing thank-you notes at all were another set of related activities.
A crucial piece of information for Smiley fans is that, among her many novels, Horse Heaven most resembles Moo. (And there's even a pig!) In fact, with these two books it appears that this versatile author has finally found a home in which to unpack her impressive gifts: that is, the sprawling, intricately plotted satirical novel. Her target in this case is not academia but horse racing--less commonly satirized but, here at least, just as fruitfully so. Wickedly knowing, dryly comic, the result is as much fun to read as it must have been to write.

None of which means that Horse Heaven is a casual read. For starters, one practically needs a racing form to keep track of its characters, particularly when their stories begin to overlap and converge in increasingly unlikely and pleasing ways. Perhaps it says something about the novel that the easiest figures to follow are the horses themselves: loutish Epic Steam, the "monster" colt; the winsome filly Residual; supernaturally focused Limitless; and trembling little Froney's Sis. And that's not to forget Horse Heaven's single most prepossessing character, Justa Bob--a little swaybacked, a little ewe-necked, but possessed of a fine sense of humor and an abiding disdain for winning races by anything but a nose.

Then there are the humans, including but not limited to socialite Rosalind Maybrick, her husband Al (who manufactures "giant heavy metal objects" in "distant impoverished nationlike locations"), a Zen trainer, a crooked trainer, a rapper named Ho Ho Ice Chill, an animal psychic, and a futurist scholar, as well as attendant jockeys, grooms, and hangers-on. (Not to mention poor, ironically named Joy, a few years out of Moo U and still having problems relating.) It's a little frustrating to watch this cast come and go and fight for Smiley's attention; you glimpse them so vividly, and then they disappear for another hundred pages, and it breaks your heart.

But there are certainly worse problems a novel could have than characters to whom you grow overattached. A plot this convoluted would be one, if only it weren't so hard to stop reading. There are elements of magic realism, astounding coincidences, unabashed anthropomorphism. (At one point--while Justa Bob throws himself against his stall in sorrow at leaving his owner's tiny, wordless mother behind--this reviewer cried, "Shameless!" even as she began to tear up.) Improbably, it all works. Horse Heaven is a great, joyous, big-hearted entertainment, a stakes winner by any measure, and for both horse lovers and fans of Smiley's dry, character-based wit, a cause for celebration on par with winning the Triple Crown. --Mary Park

From Publishers Weekly

The Chinese calendar aside, 2000 may be the Year of the Horse. Almost neck and neck with Alyson Hagy's Keeneland, this novel about horses and their breeders, owners, trainers, grooms, jockeys, traders, bettors and other turf-obsessed humans is another winner. Smiley, it turns out, knows a prodigious amount about Thoroughbreds, and she is as good at describing the stages of their lives, their temperaments and personalities as she is in chronicling the ambitions, financial windfalls and ruins, love affairs, partings and reconciliations of her large cast of human characters. With settings that range from California and Kentucky to Paris, the novel covers two years in which the players vie with each other to produce a mount that can win high-stakes races. Readers will discover that hundreds of things can go wrong with a horse, from breeding through birth, training and racing, and that every race has variables and hazards that can produce danger and death, as well as the loss of millions of dollars. (A scene in which one horse stumbles and sets off a chain reaction of carnage is heartbreaking.) Characters who plan, scheme, connive and yearn for a winner include several greedy, impetuous millionaires and their wives; one trainer who is a model of rectitude, and another who has found Jesus but is crooked to the core; two preadolescent, horse-obsessed kids; a knockout black woman whose beauty is the entrance key to the racing world; the horses themselves (cleverly, Smiley depicts a horse communicator who can see into the equine mind); and one very sassy Jack Russell dog. Written with high spirits and enthusiasm, distinguished by Smiley's wry humor (as in Moo), the novel gallops into the home stretch without losing momentum. Fans of A Thousand Acres may feel that Smiley has deserted the realm of serious literature for suspense and romance, but this highly readable novel shows that she can perform in both genres with ?lan. 150,000 first printing; 15-city author tour; Random House audio. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

I was sad to have to have read the last chapter...not one you want to see end.
Rebecca L. Obuchowski
Toward the end, the various stories are reeled out a little too far to be tied up in a manner clever enough to do justice to the rest of the book.
Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader
I found this book so satisfying, as there are really few well written books that are about horses or indeed about racing.
Fataah Ewe'

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

95 of 101 people found the following review helpful By Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader on April 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I blow hot and cold on Jane Smiley. "Liddy Newton" was okay, and (blasphemy!) I really didn't care for "A Thousand Acres."
But I loved "Moo," that astute and funny take on Midwestern ag academe.
So now there's "Horse Heaven," a book bound to boost race track attendance nationwide. Smiley takes two years in the lives of horses and horse people, and weaves a brisk and bright book about the racing world. The character list includes the gamut of racetrack regulars-the trainers, the hyper-rich owners, the gamblers, the jockeys, horse-crazy teenage girls-and best of all, the horses. Jane's a risky writer and takes a chance on working the horses' perspective into the narrative, which is a kick. The horses are wonderfully imagined, and it's great fun to find out just what they think about racing, and how well they might do betting on each other.
The narrative needed to be pulled in a little, however. Toward the end, the various stories are reeled out a little too far to be tied up in a manner clever enough to do justice to the rest of the book. Overflowing with imagination, "Horse Heaven" needed a bolder editor to bring it over the finish line a winner by more than a nose.
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Anne Cahill on May 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover
What a good book this is! I have never read Jane Smiley before and have nothing to compare this to, but I found the writing to be excellent, the characters to be extemely well-developed and accurate, and her grasp of horse-racing and the horse world in general to be masterful. The amount of research it must have taken for her to so correctly capture the little nuances of everyday life with horses is boggling, and perhaps that is why some -- people who are not "horse people", as we call them -- found the story and characters confusing and hard to follow. Ms. Smiley must have immersed herself in the racing scene to prepare for writing this book, and her readers do not have the same luxury. Those that already know what it's like (and that could mean from any "horsey" discipline, like the hunter/jumper world) have a head start and therefore a great advantage in reading this book. I found her characterizations of ALL creatures, be they human, equine, or canine, to be right on target. Wonderful reading for the equestrian-minded!
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By David Harshbarger on April 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Horse heaven is bold. Jane Smiley strives to explore all facets of racing, from the Derby and internationally listed races to minor track sprints to layup farms and killers. She is equally bold to sketch the many characters found in racing, broadly divided among the horse-struck and the rest, but also split among the good, the indiffernt, and the evil. Most excitingly she delves into the minds of the horses and animals, exposing the dialogue we all know goes on behind those eyes.
Other comments are well-taken. There are so many characters laced throughout the story you'll need to thumb back to find them. Dostoevsky made me do the same thing.
If you love horses and racing, and if you love literature, you will truly love this book.
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51 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Win on July 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Having been an excercise jockey and assistanttrainer/barnmanager for a stable full of racehorses of course I wasgoing to read this book. Now take into consideration that I am not only a very experienced horseperson (racing and hunter/jumper) but I have a degree in English Literature. With this in mind, realize that I did not read "Horse Heaven" to gain any profound knowledge of the horse world, nor did I expect to be enlightened by its metaphoric artistry. No big surprises there as far as the book goes.
Smiley draws out for the reader a very accurate portrait of the racing world as a whole. She creates real-life characters of racing - the crooked trainer, the clueless owners, the ever hopeful horse crazy young girl, the slightly cooky but ever lovable animal communicator, the trainer trying to get a break, the up and coming jockey, and the ever hopeful bettor. The book touches on many of the harsh realities of track life - common injuries that easily threaten a horses career, having a horse claimed, shady veterinary dealings, bad luck, and bad decisions. For anyone who wants to get an idea of everything involved with the glamorous and not-so-glamorous horse racing scene, this book could easily serve as the beginnner's guide.
In its entirety, "Horse Heaven" is much like an impressionist painting: From far away the big picture looks great. As an overall description of the racing world and so on Smiley paints a perfect picture, but the closer you look, the picture becomes more and more fragmented. While the characters were believable, they were lacking any depth. Smiley did not give them enough attention or time to allow the reader to understand them at all.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Robin C. on August 27, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It always amuses me in reading the reviews on Amazon to see how varied we are in our responses. Some readers found this book to be boring. I thought it was one of the most interesting books I've read in years! I loved it and have read it several times. The characters are brilliant, and I find Jane Smiley's mixture of semi-documentary tone and whimsey charming and appealing. I know nothing about horses, but her glimpses into the moods and thoughts of the thoroughbred horses SEEM spot on, and give this book an irrestible appeal. (To the reviewers who were upset at the ommissions in the audio CD, I'd say this: DON'T BUY ABRIDGED AUDIO VERSIONS! By definition, something will be left out. I enjoyed the book so much that I bought an UNABRIDGED audio version for trips, and "JustaBob" was there!)
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