This is what’s so brave about The Mare—the way it does believe in the mess of connection, and does attempt its ragged portrait, rather than simply outlining the crystalline loneliness of disconnection. It dares us to find it sentimental—squatting inside the prefab frame of an easy redemption story—but ultimately resists sentimentality with a powerful insistence on the vexed complexities of sentiment.
[Gaitskill] keeps clear of the self-justifying temptations of fiction embedded with memoir by structuring The Mare as a series of short chapters delivered in the first person, slicing deftly among her characters’ various points of view. Paul and Silvia have a say, but the leading roles are Ginger’s and Velvet’s—a risky strategy, since it requires a kid’s voice that can match an adult’s in lifelike tone and psychological depth. Velvet, fortunately, is that most wonderful of fictional creations: a convincing child who manages to be a captivating and perceptive narrator.
The Mare is worth reading for the plot alone, which is as uplifting as it is gutting. But Gaitskill is more than a gifted story-teller. She is an enchanter, to borrow Nabokov’s description of what makes a good writer a major one. The particular way in which she enchants—by putting into words the wordless undercurrent of human behavior—is explicit in The Mare.
The story, a near retelling of National Velvet, wears its heart on its sleeve, a quality that’s aroused surprised applause and a few sneers ... In The Mare, the author burdens her characters with the thorniest and most political obstacles to lasting love: race, class, culture ... Love in The Mare is more constant and accessible than in Gaitskill’s previous work, and characters are more vocal about their affections, but the lens trained on it is no kinder ... To be a reader of Gaitskill and, perhaps, a balanced human, you agree to tolerate simultaneous realities.
Ms. Gaitskill is such a preternaturally gifted writer that nearly every page of The Mare shimmers with exacting and sometimes hallucinatory observation...As this novel moves forward, however, we begin to feel we’ve been here many times before. The Mare trots, in fairly docile fashion, along the path of nearly every sports-underdog story ever written.
Gaitskill delivers this visceral moment, and others like it, with full knowledge that embraces can be rough, and the people offering them are nearly always flawed, vulnerable and scarred. And yet, she insists in this magnificently hopeful novel. And yet.
Gaitskill depicts this world with skill and sensitivity, both the ubiquitous violence and material misery, and at the same time its heady, chaotic vitality ... Gaitskill is particularly good at conveying the sensual charge between girl and horse, preventing the horse-whisperer elements of the novel from descending into whimsy ... a dark, dreamlike novel, at times nightmarish, at others offering glimpses of the sublime, shocking in its raw depiction of violence, and beautiful in its evocation of flawed love.
At a crudely superficial level, everyone in The Mare behaves true to type; it is in its more subterranean depths that the mystery of attachment begins to show itself. Gaitskill is a writer who situates herself in a version of reality, and then studs it with the portents and symbols of the unconscious ... while The Mare is not perfect – sustaining a child’s voice is near-impossible, and the book’s adherence to an unfolding temporal narrative means that it lapses into episodic repetitiveness – it is bold, dramatic and deeply unsettling.
That Gaitskill has given not only herself a voice but also the husband, the child, and the child’s mother, in equal measure, speaks to her extraordinary artistic achievement here...Bracing in its rigorous truth-seeking, subtle and capacious in its moral vision, Gaitskill’s work feels more real than real life and reading her leads to a place that feels like a sacred space.
Gaitskill's charged writing makes all things possible here — not only surmounting the sentimental premise of this situation, but, also, delving deep into characters' lives...The Mare is a raw, beautiful story about love and mutual delusion, in which the fierce erotics of mother love and romantic love and even horse fever are swirled together.
Through this storm of female voices gallops that fierce mare, the object of Velvet’s affection, the subject of her dreams, the creature that could deliver her from turmoil — or kill her. Gaitskill’s ability to control all this energy, all this yearning, is just one of the many rewards of her brave novel.
This is rich emotional territory, well worth investigating, but Gaitskill is often too telling in The Mare. She approaches her characters’ feelings directly, rather than from the more oblique, surprising angles one associates with her earlier books...A writer should feel free to experiment with new forms, and there is much admirable feeling in this book, but devoted Gaitskill fans are likely to miss the compression and weirdness of her signature work.
...caring for a child can also be thankless work, and the parallels between raising horses and teenagers are sometimes too neat. (The Mare is a play on mère, or mother.) But the novel is still a deeply affecting tribute to basic human connection. As it turns out, the ending is neither triumphant nor depressing—it’s a truthful meditation on the limits of birth motherhood, surrogate motherhood, and mothering yourself.
The range of Gaitskill's humanity is astonishing and matched only, it seems, by a desire to confront readers with the trembling reality of our shared ugliness. Is it possible that Gaitskill can still shock us?
In The Mare, Gaitskill engages, sometimes alarmingly, in multiple ambivalent, self-conscious acts of appropriation, apparently drawing on many of the family dynamics she described in the essay. The novel both tackles and embodies this appropriation, anxiously considering race and class privilege, emotional neediness and the hunger to be a savior. In the novel, unlike the essay, the ending redeems the characters and so justifies all their choices and actions.
Rarely do novels address social problems this honestly without capitulating to despair. Yet The Mare, miraculously, is hopeful - candid and full of ruin, but hopeful, an effort of the body fully earned.
It’s done so well, you feel it, too, every slight and fear and tremor of desire. No one can speak fully or clearly to one another in this book, and yet they all communicate like crazy, with each other and with us — even to the point of a wordless epiphany.