The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

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This book is perniciously bad.

Full disclosure: I read it for my book group. I certainly would not have bothered with it otherwise. I knew when I started it that it was not “my type” of book, and that I probably wouldn’t like it. I even wrote a short post debating whether or not it would be unfair of me to review it since the fault was mine, not the book’s. However, when I wrote that post, I hadn’t yet finished reading it, and there was much plot yet to come. I had no idea how bad it was going to get. Now it appears that I have a duty to write this review to warn y’all away.

This novel is about the trials & tribulations of a race car driver, Denny. His wife dies; he becomes embroiled in a custody battle with his in-laws; and he is falsely accused of rape. He overcomes these obstacles, learns valuable life lessons and becomes a better, wiser man. And the hook is that the whole story is first-person narrated by his dog Enzo. Whom we know, from page 1, is going to die at the end.

So, here’s a laundry list of criticisms:

1. Some of the “life lessons” are very, very wrong.

Listen to this:

What is the real truth regarding the death of Ayrton Senna, who was only thirty-four years old?

I know the truth, and I will tell you now:

He was admired, loved, cheered, honored, respected. In life as well as in death. A great man, he is. A great man, he was. A great man, he will be.

He died that day because his body had served its purpose. His soul had done what it came to do, learned what it came to learn, and then was free to leave. And I knew, as Denny sped me toward the doctor who would fix me, that if I had already accomplished what I set out to accomplish here on earth, if I had already learned what I was meant to learn, I would have left the curb one second later than I had, and I would have been killed instantly by that car.

But I was not killed. Because I was not finished. I still had work to do.

Well I got news for you. People die ALL THE TIME before they are “finished” and to suggest otherwise is insulting. Yes, it could be the case that God has a grand plan and we mere mortals (by definition) can’t see it. I don’t agree with that — I think much happens that is senseless and random — but I’ll grant you that it’s a possibility. However, in Racing there isn’t any mention of God or grand plans. Just a dog. Is the dog supposed to be god? There is so much wrong with this that all I can do is sputter. Seriously.

2. Other “life lessons” are trite and obvious.

Example:

Hands are the windows to a man’s soul.

Watch in-car videos of race drivers enough, and you’ll see the truth of this statement. The rigid, tense grip of one driver reflects his rigid, tense driving style. The nervous hand-shuffle of another driver proves how uncomfortable he is in the car. A driver’s hands should be relaxed, sensitive, aware. Much information is communicated through the steering wheel of a car; too tight or too nervous a grip will not allow the information to be communicated to the brain.

So are toes. Mine are curling with embarrassment just from having typed that.

3. The intelligent dog has a startling blind spot.

The dog lives in a constant state of frustration because he cannot communicate with humans. He complains about this frequently throughout the book. Wrong shaped vocal chords & mouth plus no opposable thumbs equals total inability to communicate. Come on. He is intelligent enough that he can know God’s grand plan, but he can’t figure out a way to communicate with gestures?

4. Some major plot twists are strangely inexplicable.

People do really shitty things to Denny. The grandparents’ custody battle is looooong and expensive and vicious, and why? The author gives no foreshadowing, no background or life story for the couple. There is no indication that their daughter suffered any ill effects from growing up with such vicious parents. There is no indication that Denny is a bad father, which might also provide some motivation. The in-laws say they are worried about his financial situation, but is that reason enough for this huge battle? I mean, why not set up a trust fund? In short, this major plot twist is just not believable. The false rape accusation, ditto. That’s huge. There is no backstory or motivation for this girl. I guess she just wanted attention? Or did the evil grandparents bribe her to perjure herself in order to bolster their custody case? Again: just not believable.

5. The writing is not engaging.

I admit, this is subjective. But here’s the thing. I have zero background knowledge about car racing. Zero interest in it either. And that means I am ripe for the excitement of learning something new. This book could have sucked me into a hitherto unknown world filled with colorful characters and fascinating insights. It could have turned me into a fan. Like for example Patrick O’Brian turned me into a fan of Age of Sail, which I had zero knowledge of before reading those books. Or Michael Chabon turned me into a fan of comic books, which I hated before reading Kavalier & Clay. Those authors showed me a new way to see something I had previously thought boring, and whoa, I became fangirl. But not this book, alas.

6. The Deus ex machina ending is ridiculous.

Ah yes, all ends must be neatly tied. So why not have a new character sail in at the very end and suddenly offer Denny his dream job? And then the dog dies (because now his work is “finished”), but luckily we don’t have to be sad about that because Denny goes to the race track and meets him again, reincarnated as a little boy also named Enzo who is “a race car driver at heart” and we can all be happy and The End.

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7 thoughts on “The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

  1. Thank you for helping me not waste my time. I’ve walked past this book a lot and have come close to buying it. I didn’t realize it was a novel rather than a “dogoir” (of which there are good ones out there! also, I didn’t make up that genre title). Clearly I was too enamored of the picture of the dog on the cover than the teeny words that say “A Novel.”

    I’m curious to know what you meant by this isn’t “your type” of book. That it’s narrated by an animal? I’m not into that, either, although the best, and ok, probably only book I’ve read that was narrated by a dog was Paul Auster’s Timbuktu.

    • Ooooh, good question! I DO have problems with talking animals. I think I might write tomorrow’s post about that actually — thanks for the idea. :-) But what I have a bigger problem with is being spoonfed preachy, cheesy, overly simplistic life lessons. Chicken Soup for the Soul, Tuesdays with Morrie, that kind of thing. I get life lessons from literature all the time, but I’d rather extract them from the story myself than be hit over the head with them, ya know?

      And yes! The dog on the cover is soooooo cute!

      And, I am putting Timbuktu on my wish list. I have kind of a crush on Paul Auster & haven’t read that one.

      • I hear you. I hate being hit over the head with these “lessons.” It happens in some movies, too. And last year I stopped watching Blue Bloods on CBS (the cop show with Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg) because it was so incredibly preachy.

        I still have my copy of Timbuktu and it’s in really good condition. I could only read it once, not because it was bad but because…well, no spoilers. I will be happy to send you my copy if you want. Let me know.

  2. Oh, this does sound terrible on so many levels. Has your book group discussed it yet? I’m curious what others said or will say about it. I don’t like cheesy/preachy stuff either, nor the “it was his/her time” line of thinking about death. Yuck.

    • No, my group is meeting next week. To be honest, I am kind of dreading it. Some books are fun to pick apart, but this one will be hard to discuss without insulting the person who suggested it. (She had already read it, and said that it had “sweet bits of wisdom.”) I will definitely report back afterwards! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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