The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. HarperCollins, 2008. 321 pp. 978-0-06-153796-7.
... in which Enzo the dog tells us the story of his life with his human.
I didn't intend to read this book at this particular moment in time. It was in my pile of books to be read, which I was reorganizing last night. As I was sorting through the books, I picked this one up and realized that I didn't really know what it was about, except that it involved a dog. So, I decided to just read the first page or two. A few hours later, I looked up and realized that I was at the end of the book. Oops.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is told from the perspective of Enzo, a lab-terrier mix. It's not a cheap gimmick... there are no clever conversations between animals, and no dogs talking directly to humans. Instead, it's told through Enzo's observations of his master's life.
The book opens at the end of Enzo's life, as he reflects on the events that have consumed the past few years. As an old dog in failing health, Enzo is ready to move on. He once saw a documentary about Mongolia, and he learned that Mongolians believe that a dog who is prepared will be reborn as a human. Enzo is ready to be a human.
Enzo and his human, Denny, share a very special bond; Enzo is one of the most important things in Denny's life. Enzo watches as Denny, an aspiring race car driver, falls in love with a woman, Eve. Denny eventually marries Eve, and they have a child, Zoe, who Enzo swears to protect forever. When Zoe is still a toddler, Enzo begins to smell something foul and dark growing in Eve's head; it turns out to be a brain tumor, and Eve's illness and death trigger a nasty custody battle between Denny and Eve's parents for custody of Zoe. In the subsequent pages, as Denny faces greater and greater challenges and descends into despair, Enzo is his only friend.
One of the things I liked most about this book was the fact that the story is told simply and in a straight-forward fashion, making it a fast read. Enzo makes an insightful storyteller, partially because as a dog, he acts as an unofficial confessor to most of the characters in the book. As a dog, he also can read human emotions with a clarity that humans sometimes lack. Through Enzo's loving eyes, Denny is fleshed out as a three-dimensional character, deeply in love with his wife, devoted to his child, and not without his own flaws. It takes awhile for Enzo to warm up to Eve, but when he finally begins to connect with her, Eve also becomes a nicely filled out character. Enzo himself is a fully realized character as well. His human emotions with his dog instincts and observations make him something more than human.
Probably the most difficult part of reading this book is the hatefulness of Eve's parents. It could be because we're seeing them through Enzo's eyes, and Enzo hates them, but at times they are so awful that it makes reading about them almost physically unpleasant. It's hard to muster up any sympathy for them, which is hard since the other important characters are fleshed out so well, but I'm choosing to attribute this to Enzo's all-encompassing devotion to his master, as opposed to any shortcoming on the author's part. My only other complaint is that one of the central complications that Denny encounters in the story seems a little contrived. The timing of a particular lawsuit comes across as a little too convenient, but perhaps some of the confusion here is because as a dog, Enzo isn't exactly allowed into the courthouse for the various hearings and so all of his information about the trials is secondhand.
Despite a middle that is full of sadness and despair, The Art of Racing in the Rain has a happy ending. It's a moving testament to the importance of the bond between human and animal, and the importance of hope in a hopeless situation. Yes, it is likely to make a lot of readers cry, but not in a bad way.