Book Review – The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

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I did not like this book.

I remember when it was released and when it was selling out in stores and was at its height of popularity. Even now, people ask for it and seem to enjoy it. I just don’t understand the appeal.

The Art of Racing in the Rain (Harper Perennial, 2008) is told from the perspective of Enzo. Enzo is a dog. The idea of this didn’t bother me. As a kid, I read a lot of books from the perspectives of dogs and I loved them. An adult-level book from this perspective is more unusual and so I was definitely curious. It’s harder to make this work and I can’t say that Stein succeeds.

To work around the narrative problem (namely that dogs most definitely think differently than humans), Stein endows Enzo with a sort of highly evolved intelligence that edges on the mystical. An ongoing theme throughout the novel is that Enzo believes that his next step of reincarnation after dying will be that he gets to be reborn as a human. At the end of the novel, we are given hints that he achieves this desire. (Usually I try to avoid spoiling endings but I don’t think you should bother reading this book.)

I’m a dog lover. And I’m someone who has no trouble anthropomorphizing non-human objects. I get attached to things and I felt sorry for the lamp in that IKEA commercial. I think dogs are smart and loving and loyal and all kinds of wonderful things. They are not humans though and they never will be.

As Enzo tells his own story he also tells the story of his master, Denny Swift. The novel encompasses the whole of Enzo’s life, which includes major events in Denny’s life – his marriage, the birth of his daughter, and a lot of subsequent disasters. Denny is an amateur race car driver. (And his last name is Swift. This novel is not subtle.) Enzo, being on such a higher plane than most dogs, also loves racing and there are chapters devoted to the finer details of car racing. I’ll admit, I have no interest in such things and skimmed most of the passages that talked about racing.

The big problem here is that the interesting story belongs to Denny. Within the space of a couple of years, his life is turned upside down. He’s a likeable guy who has some horrible things happen to him. Well told, that could have been enough for the novel. It doesn’t need this cutesy narrative conceit that adds nothing. We don’t need a dog telling us what he thinks happened inside a courtroom – just tell us what actually happened. It ends up feeling like Stein lacked confidence in his story and added in a “grab factor”.

If you are looking for a book from the perspective of a dog, try Lassie Come Home or The Incredible Journey.

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