Book Talk: “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein (Gone to the Dogs #1)

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel

Garth Stein
Harper, 2009 (paperback) (ISBN 0061537969 / 9780061537967)
Fiction, 336 pages

First sentence: Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature.
Book description: Enzo knows he is different from other dogs: a philosopher with a nearly human soul (and an obsession with opposable thumbs), he has educated himself by watching television extensively, and by listening very closely to the words of his master, Denny Swift, an up-and-coming race car driver. Through Denny, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition, and he sees that life, like racing, isn’t simply about going fast. Using the techniques needed on the race track, one can successfully navigate all of life’s ordeals.
On the eve of his death, Enzo takes stock of his life, recalling all that he and his family have been through: the sacrifices Denny has made to succeed professionally; the unexpected loss of Eve, Denny’s wife; the three-year battle over their daughter, ZoΓ«, whose maternal grandparents pulled every string to gain custody. In the end, despite what he sees as his own limitations, Enzo comes through heroically to preserve the Swift family, holding in his heart the dream that Denny will become a racing champion with ZoΓ« at his side. Having learned what it takes to be a compassionate and successful person, the wise canine can barely wait until his next lifetime, when he is sure he will return as a man.

Comments: The story of ten years in the life of Denny Swift and his family is told here by the witness to much of it, the canine philosopher Enzo. Enzo is a fine and thoughtful observer, and is highly motivated to understand humans; ever since he learned from a documentary about Mongolia that a well-prepared dog will come back in his next lifetime as a human, he’s been making sure he’ll be ready. He’s looking forward to that next life, since he’s frequently frustrated by the limitations of life as a dog, particularly the lack of speech and opposable thumbs.

That documentary is his favorite TV show of all time, but Enzo has learned a lot from TV, including how the court system works (thanks to the various Law & Order series), and even has an ordered list of favorite actors (#1: Steve McQueen; #2: Al Pacino, #3: Paul Newman; etc.). However, his favorite things to watch are auto races, especially the tapes of races driven by his master, Denny. Denny is a semi-pro racing driver and part-time instructor, who pays the bills with a job at a car dealership. His devotion to cars and racing is matched by his devotion to his family – wife Eve, daughter ZoΓ«, and, of course, Enzo, who was there first.

Enzo witnesses a lot during his years with Denny – marriage, childbirth, death, legal troubles – but most of his days are spent hanging out at home, often watching TV, and his day-to-day life is pretty routine. But he’s taking note of things for that next life, and from what he’s seen and heard, he’s gotten pretty good at envisioning what happens when he’s not actually around for it.

Enzo is a wonderful character, and one of the most memorable I’ve met lately. I love the language that author Garth Stein uses for him; it’s simple and at times oddly formal, and seems much like the way someone speaks in his non-native tongue, which is strangely appropriate – after all, our narrator doesn’t naturally have human speech. And while he doesn’t always revel in his canine nature – at times, he’s almost a little self-loathing – Stein has portrayed that nature quite well, based on my own experience as a human observer of canines.

One thing I’ve noticed from my own observation is that many dogs are obsessed with cars. (“Ride in the car?” is a question that always gets my dog’s immediate attention.) Since Enzo lives with a race-car driver, he’s more obsessed than most. I liked the descriptions of racing and driving throughout the book, both as metaphors and from a technical standpoint. I consider myself an average driver and, to me, cars are transportation, but I’m married to a “car nerd” who subscribes to car magazines and takes cars and driving very seriously, so I’ve learned to appreciate that perspective.

I loved Enzo, but I liked The Art of Racing in the Rain. I wanted to love it, and I thought it was an engaging story and a fast read (appropriate, given the racing theme), but I found it a bit predictable and at times melodramatic, so it wasn’t entirely satisfying for me. Overall, though, it’s still very enjoyable, and anyone who loves dogs – regardless of how they feel about cars – really should get to know Enzo. (And thanks to my car-loving husband, I knew that our hero is named after a Ferrari.)

Book #13 for the RYOB 2009 Challenge (goal is 20)

Other bloggers’ recent reviews:

If you’re an Enzo fan, you can show it with hats and T-shirts from The Enzo Store!

Most of the recent reviews, including my own, are based on the paperback edition of this novel, which was published in June 2009. I purchased my copy because this book has been on my wishlist since it was originally published in hardcover last year. If you have also reviewed this book, please leave your link in comments or e-mail me at 3.rsblog AT Gmail DOT com, and I’ll edit this review to include it.

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  1. I am glad you enjoyed this one, Florinda, even if it didn't completely wow you. Enzo sounds like a wonderful dog. I often wonder what my dog thinks of everything that goes on around him. I imagine most pet lovers do. πŸ™‚ Terrific review!

  2. Great review!
    I've heard a lot of good things about this book. The other day, I went bookshopping and I saw these two ladies in front of me each bought a copy of this book. Now I suppose it's my turn next! πŸ˜›

  3. Wendy (Literary Feline) – I'm always imagining what Gypsy must be thinking, but I get the feeling her thoughts aren't as deep as Enzo's. Mostly about food and chasing rabbits, probably :-).

    Molly – That's pretty much how it worked out for me. Enzo's awesome :-).

    Diane – I can see why so many people have liked this book so much.

    Marie – You should read it, and see for yourself :-).

    Melody – I guess you should put this on your list for your next visit to the bookstore, then :-).

    Kathy (Bermudaonion) – Gypsy usually falls asleep in front of the TV. Maybe if we watched racing, she'd be more interested :-). And how can you NOT love Enzo?

  4. I love your Gone to the Dogs theme! You are not alone in finding the storyline melodramatic. I have to be honest and admit to liking soap operas from time to time. LOL! I loved Enzo and he is what I remember from that book. Great review!

  5. Jennifer (Literate Housewife) – I feel a little better knowing that I'm not the only one who found this one melodramatic at times, although that's not necessarily a bad thing. As you say, sometimes soap opera is fun :-). Still, Enzo is reason alone to read this.