In the November 5, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books Cathleen Schine digs into the heart and soul of Mary Gaitskill’s new novel, The Mare.
Schine has published nine novels—two of which have been made into films, one of which starred Parker Posey—and her essay “Dog Trouble,” originally published in The New Yorker, was included in The Best American Essays 2005. But perhaps Schine’s most important credential for evaluating Gaitskill’s novel is the fact that she is from the New York metropolitan area—Westport, CT—and resides in New York City, which affords her some essential background into the world of The Mare. It’s clear that Schine “gets it,” as the novel moves from the destitute poverty of Brooklyn to the white liberal guilt of entitled Rhinebeck, NY. She navigates the physical and the emotional world of the characters with ease and grace.
Even though the quotes from The Mare that Schine uses in her review don’t appeal to me, her explication of the moral depravity of the characters—and of Mary Gaitskill’s work in general—made me want to read the entire Mary Gaitskill catalog. Schine’s review gets to the psychological center of Gaitskill’s book: the broken lives of the two principal female characters, Velvet and Ginger (which strike me as stripper names, a point that Schine never mentions, despite the fact that Mary Gaitskill was once a stripper).
Velvet is a twelve-year-old Dominican girl living in Brooklyn with her mentally and physically abusive mother. Ginger is an older white woman living in Rhinebeck, NY in recovery from alcohol and sex addiction. Ginger and Velvet meet through a non-profit organization that connects inner-city kids to positive rural experiences, such as riding horses. This organization, although it means well, feeds the white liberal guilt of Rhinebeck’s inhabitants. Schine mocks it by noting “the vanity of the white host families, their excruciating condescension and entitlement.”
Schine handles Gaitskill’s characters neither without sentimentality.
The moment [Ginger] sees Velvet get off the bus, she falls in love with the girl . . . [they] are all world-weary females, abused, exhausted by life, united in their desire for safety, love, freedom, and power.
Schine could have pitied these characters for the dysfunction and rampant abuse they have experienced, but instead she describes how they seek “freedom” and “power.” She treats them like human beings who are responsible for their own lives and actions. In keeping with Gaitskill’s soulful ruthlessless as a novelist, she never reduces Velvet and Ginger to despicable creatures.
Although it’s clear that we are in a dysfunctional, drug-addled, abusive Mary Gaitskill world, Schine draws parallels between The Mare and classic children’s books about girls and their horses, implying that while the language, actions, and psychological depth are all different, the feelings remain the same. At the center of all these works lies the notion that these women and young girls are looking for comfort, acceptance, and love. They look for it in their mothers, husbands, boyfriends, horses, and friends. But the one place they’re not looking for comfort is the only place they should be looking: in themselves.
Amid Velvet and Ginger’s personal battles, there is redemption in Schine’s review. Toward the end, she details Velvet’s relationship with an older boy, a gang member. Velvet receives a serious beating from her mother after coming late one night after a party with gang members. As vicious as Velvet’s mother seems, Schine sees that that attack is done out of love. “Velvet’s mother is . . . an angry, brutal woman,” Schine says, yet she never strikes Velvet as she disciplines her. She doesn’t seem to want to disgrace her at all. While Schine doesn’t seem to condone physically restraining a child as a means for discipline, she does sympathize with Velvet’s mother. She has compassion for all the characters in the book, even the villains.
By the end, it’s clear that Schine sees hope in these women—they are broken down, but they are not broken. As much as they seemed trapped by outside forces, or the forces of their own tormented minds, they will always, much like the horses they ride, break free.
David Plick is the founder and editor of the online lit and humor magazine Down & Out, and a former Henry Roth Fiction Scholar at The City University of New York. His work has been featured in ArchDaily, Fiction, Word Riot, Philadelphia Review of Books, and other places. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Guttman Community College.