Paras, short for Perestroika, is a spirited racehorse at a racetrack west of Paris. One afternoon at dusk, she finds the door of her stall open and—she's a curious filly—wanders all the way to the City of Light. But how long can a runaway horse stay undiscovered in Paris?
With a degree of savviness that would impress even the most experienced product management consultant, Jane Smiley has combined two foolproof genres of escapist fiction for her latest book, Perestroika in Paris: the Parisian fairy tale and the equestrian novel ... I like that Ms. Smiley has leaned into the fantasy, hiding Paras not in some random greenspace hugging the Périphérique but in the Champ de Mars, the crowded park in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower ... Ms. Smiley places herself in the consciousness of her characters, imagining the various ways that each creature perceives the world, but the feel-good charm of her novel flows from the fact that they are all able to understand each other, creating a species-crossing conspiracy of kindness.
The interesting thing about all this — especially if you’re a book reviewer who’s never so much as ridden a horse — is that her fixation on horses demonstrates the breadth of Smiley’s skills, not her narrowness ... [Smiley] crafts intimate domestic stories and big-picture social novels, addresses kids and grown-ups, and writes in a host of registers ... here Smiley stretches her talents even further ... though the animals’ personalities tend to stick to the straightforward archetypes of children’s literature — daring, haughty, exploring, squawky — Smiley strives to avoid a cloying tale about getting along ... the animals’ perspectives on people make our blessed strangeness easier to see. That makes Smiley’s fun, light read also something of a more serious literary challenge in characterization: Can a novelist give a novelist human traits, and vice versa, without teetering into unreality? ... Though there’s a perhaps inevitable Disney-ish sheen to the proceedings, as if the novel was a high-end adaptation of a film like Ratatouille. Smiley has the comic sensibility to sustain the suspension of disbelief her setup demands.
... might just be the perfect antidote for 2020. Readers looking for an escape from reality may find solace in this sweet fable for adults about an inquisitive Thoroughbred and all the creatures she encounters in her Parisian adventures. ... Smiley ascribes to every animal a self-awareness that isn’t meant to be cute or precious or even humanizing but is instead insightful and introspective and feels true to each species ... sneaks up on you. As much as I enjoyed following the introspective musings of the animals, I soon became caught up in the fates of the humans. As the novel progressed, I grew more invested in Etienne and his great grandmama. When Paras, Frida, and the boy find and begin to take care of each other, we realize how on the edge Etienne and Madame de Mornay are living ... This is an unusual novel that rewards readers willing to cast aside their cynicism and let themselves be transported to Paris, to see the Trocadéro and Champs de Mars through the eyes of these intrepid creatures. Plenty of children’s books feature animals at their center, but fables for adults are rare. In Perestroika in Paris, Jane Smiley has created a world where kindness is king, and that’s exactly where I want to be.