The Mare: A Novel

Paperback | October 4, 2016

byMary Gaitskill

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One of the Best Books of the Year
The New York TimesThe Washington Post • NPR • San Francisco ChronicleVanity Fair • Milwaukee Journal SentinelKansas City Star

When Velveteen Vargas, an eleven-year-old Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn, comes to stay with a family in upstate New York, what begins as a two-week visit blossoms into something much more significant. Soon Velvet finds herself torn between her host family—Ginger, a failed artist and shakily recovered alcoholic; and Paul, a college professor—and her own deeply tormented mother. The one constant becomes Velvet’s newly discovered passion for horse riding—and especially for an abused, unruly mare named Fugly Girl. A stirring and deeply felt novel, The Mare is Mary Gaitskill’s most poignant and powerful work yet—a stunning exploration of a girl and her horse, and of the way we connect with people from all walks of life.

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From the Publisher

One of the Best Books of the YearThe New York Times • The Washington Post • NPR • San Francisco Chronicle • Vanity Fair • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • Kansas City StarWhen Velveteen Vargas, an eleven-year-old Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn, comes to stay with a family in upstate New York, what begins as a two-week visit blossoms into...

Mary Gaitskill is the author of the story collections Bad Behavior, Because They Wanted To (nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award), and Don’t Cry, and the novels Veronica (nominated for a National Book Award) and Two Girls, Fat and Thin. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esqui...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:544 pages, 8 × 5.21 × 0.92 inPublished:October 4, 2016Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307743608

ISBN - 13:9780307743602

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Velvet   That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and her turned away. She holding Dante and he holding her, his head in her breasts, wrapped around each other like they’re falling down a hole. It was okay. I was a eleven-year-old girl, and I didn’t need to have my face in my mama’s titty no more—that is, if I ever did. Dante, my little brother, was only six.   It was summer, and the air conditioner was up too high, dripping dirty water on the floor, outside the pan I put there to catch it. Too loud too, but still I heard a shot from outside or maybe a shout from my dream. I was dreaming about my grandfather from DR; he was lost in a dark place, like a castle with a lot of rooms and rich white people doing scary things in all of them, and my grandfather somewhere shouting my name. Or maybe it was a shot. I sat up and listened, but there wasn’t anything.   That day we had to get on a bus and go stay with rich white people for two weeks. We signed up to do this at Puerto Rican Family Services in Williamsburg, even though we’re Dominican and we just moved to Crown Heights. The social worker walked around in little high heels, squishing out of tight pants like she’s a model, but with her face frowning like a mask on Halloween.   My mom talked to her about how our new neighborhood was all bad “negritas,” no Spanish people. She told her how she had to work all day and sometimes at night, keeping a roof over our heads. She said it was going to be summer and I was too old for day care, and because I was stupid she couldn’t trust me to stay inside and not go around the block talking to men. She laughed when she said this, like me talking to men was so stupid it was funny. But I don’t go around talking to men, and I told the social worker that with my face.   Which made the social worker with her eyes and her mouth tell my mom she’s shit. Which made me hate the woman, even if my mom was lying about me. My mom acted like she didn’t see what the social worker said with her eyes and mouth, but I knew she did see—she saw like she always does. But she kept talking and smiling with her hard mouth until the social worker handed her a shiny booklet—she stopped then. I looked to see what had shut my mother up; it was pictures of white people on some grass hugging dark children. Mask-Face told us we could go stay with people like this for two weeks. “It sounds like hell,” whispered Dante, but Mask-Face didn’t hear. We could swim and ride bicycles, she said. We could learn about animals. I took the booklet out of my mother’s hands. It said something about love and having fun. There was a picture of a girl darker than me petting a sheep. There was a picture of a woman with big white legs sitting in a chair with a hat on and a plastic orange flower in her hand, looking like she was waiting for somebody to have fun with.   My mom doesn’t write, so I filled out the forms. Dante just sat there talking to himself, not caring about anything like always. I didn’t want him to come with me, bothering me while I was trying to ride a bicycle or something, so when they asked how he gets along with people, I wrote, “He hits.” They asked how he resolves conflict and I wrote, “He hits.” It was true, anyway. Then my mom asked if we could go to the same family so I could take care of Dante, and Mask-Face said no, it’s against the rules. I was glad, and then I felt sorry for saying something bad about Dante for nothing. My mom started to fight about it, and Mask-Face said again, It’s against the rules. The way she said it was another way of saying “You’re shit,” and the smell of that shit was starting to fill up the room. I could feel Dante get small inside. He said, “I don’t want to go be with those people.” He said it so soft you could barely hear him, but my mother said, “Shut up, you ungrateful boy! You’re stupid!” The smell got stronger; it covered my mother’s head, and she scratched herself like she was trying to brush it off.   But she couldn’t and so when we left, she hit Dante on the head and called him stupid some more. Going to this place with bicycles and sheep had been turned into a punishment.   Still, I had hope that it would be fun. The lady I would stay with had called to talk to me and she sounded nice. Her voice was little, like she was scared. She said we were going to ride a Ferris wheel at the county fair and swim at the lake and see horses. She didn’t sound like the lady with the big legs, but that’s how I pictured her, with a plastic flower. I thought of that picture and that voice and I got excited.   I got up and went out into the hall and got into the closet where our coats were. I dug into the back and found my things I keep in the old cotton ball box. I took them out through our living room into the kitchen, where it was heavy-warm from all the hot days so far. I poured orange juice in my favorite glass with purple flowers on it. I took the juice and my box to the open window and leaned out on the ledge. It was so early there was nobody on the street except a raggedy man creeping against a building down below us, holding on to it with one hand like for balance. He was holding the wall where somebody had written “Cookie” in big red paint. That was because this boy called Cookie used to stand there a lot. He was called that because he ate big cookies all the time. We used to see him in Mr. Nelson’s store downstairs and we weren’t supposed to talk to him because he was from the project over on Troy Avenue. But I did talk to him and he was nice. Even if he told me once that even though he liked me, if somebody paid him enough, he’d kill me. He wouldn’t want to because I was gonna grow up fine, but he’d have to. He said it like he was making friends with me. We stood there talking for a while and then he broke off a piece of soft cookie and gave it to Dante. He said, “Stay fine, girl.” A little while later a cop killed him for nothing and his name got put on a wall.   I took my things out of the box and laid them out on the ledge. They looked nice together: a silver bell I got from a prize machine, a plastic orange sun I tore off a get-well card somebody gave my mom, a blond key-chain doll with only one leg wearing a checkered coat, a dried sea horse from DR that my grandfather sent me, and a blue shell my father gave me when I was a baby and he lived with us. My father gave me two shells, but I gave the brown-and-pink one to this girl Strawberry because her brother died.   I held the blue shell against my lip to feel how smooth it was. I looked up and saw the sun had put a gold outline on the building across from us. I looked down and saw the raggedy man stop against the wall, like he was trying to get the strength to breathe.   After Cookie got shot I heard these men talking about him at Mr. Nelson’s. I heard his name and this man said, “Suicide by cop.” I thought, What does that mean? so loud it was like they heard me because they got quiet. When we left, my mom whispered, “Gangbangers.”   On the street, the raggedy man stretched up against the wall, his arms and hands spread out like he was crying on the red-painted word. For a second, everything was hard and clear and pounding beautiful.   The last time I saw my father I was almost ten and Dante was four. We had to leave our old apartment in Williamsburg, and my mom was staying with a friend and trying to find a new place, so he came and took us to Philadelphia in the car with his friend Manuel. I remember blowing bubbles on the fire escape with his other kids from this woman Sophia; she had soft breasts pushed together in a green dress, and she made asopao with shrimp, and mango pudding. She never liked me, but her girls were nice. We slept in the same bed and told stories about a disgusting white guy in history who cut people up with a chain saw and danced around in their skins. And the littlest girl would rap Missy Elliott, like, I heard the bitch got hit with three zebras and a monkey / I can’t stand the bitch no way. And it made me and Dante laugh, ’cause she’s so cute—she’s only three. There were dogs going in and out, and Dante was scared at first, then he loved them. It was fun, but on the way back in the car, my father took my emergency money out of my pocket to pay the tolls and didn’t give it back. Manuel was in the car and he made fun of me for being mad. Then he came to New York and started renting a room from us.   My father sends Dante a dollar in a card for his birthday sometimes. Never me.   I put down the shell and picked up the sea horse. I never met my grandfather, but he loved me. He talked to me on the phone and when I sent him my picture, he said I was beautiful. He called me “mi niña.” He told me stories about how bad my mom was when she was little, and how she got punished. He sent the sea horse. He said one day my mom would bring me and Dante to visit and he would take us to the ocean. I remember his voice: tired and rough but mad fun inside. I never saw him and I almost never talked to him on the phone, but when I did, it was like arms around me. Then his voice started getting more tired and the fun was far away in him. He said, “I’m always gonna be with you. Just think of me, I’m there.” It scared me. I wanted to say, Grandpa, why are you talking like this? But I was too scared. “Even in your dreams,” he said. “I’m gonna be there.” I said, “Bendición, Abuelo,” and he answered, “Dios te bendiga.” A month later, he died.   I put my things back in the box. I looked down in the street. The raggedy man was gone. The gold outline on the building was gone too, spread out through the sky, making it shiny with invisible light. For some reason I thought of a TV commercial where a million butterflies burst out from some shampoo bottle or cereal box. I thought of Cookie’s face when he gave my brother a cookie. I thought of the big-legs lady in the booklet holding the fake orange flower, looking like she was hoping for someone to come have fun with her.   ###

Bookclub Guide

US 1. Kirkus Reviews writes, “Gaitskill takes a premise that could have been preachy, sentimental, or simplistic—juxtaposing urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old, brown and white—and makes it candid and emotionally complex, spare, real, and deeply affecting.” How does Gaitskill manage to do this? 2. Why do you think the book opens with an epigraph from National Velvet? Why do you think Gaitskill refers to another famous horse book/movie? What does “intolerance” have to do with this book? And why do you think she named one of her main characters Velvet? 3. Why this title? Is Ginger The Mare as much as the horse is? Is Velvet’s mom also the mare? “‘My mare,’ like ‘mah mere’ or ‘ma mère’” (p. 99). 4. Describe the structure of the novel. Why do you think there are no chapters, just short sections interweaving different voices together? What is the effect on you as a reader to hear Ginger’s and Velvet’s perspectives, sometimes on the same events or subjects?  Do you think this makes the novel a more compelling, more personal story? What effect do the various viewpoints and voices have on your reading experience? 5. Describe the home environments of Velvet and Ginger. How and why are they different? How are they similar? 6. Describe Velvet’s relationship with her mother. How does it compare with what we learn of Ginger’s relationship with her mother and sister? 7. Compare and contrast Velvet’s friendships with the other girls in her class with Ginger’s relationships with the other women in the novel. How and why are both Velvet and Ginger outsiders? How have both of them “created ways to keep others at a distance” (p. 10)? How are both rootless? 8. How do Velvet’s stereotypes of “rich white people” and Ginger’s stereotypes of inner-city kids evolve over the course of the novel? 9. Why do Ginger and her husband fall for the Fresh Air Fund brochures? “It was sentimental and flattering to white vanity and manipulative as hell. It was also irresistible” (p. 14). 10. Why is Ginger enchanted by Velvet? “Her presence made everything special” (p. 55). 11. After Fiery Girl accepts her, how is Velvet enchanted by the horse? 12. How is Pat different from other horse trainers? Do you like her style and way with horses? Contrast her methods with Beverly’s. 13. How does Ginger’s past haunt her present? The abusive boyfriend? The drinking? When do the two coincide and meet her directly in the present? 14. Describe Velvet’s relationship with Fiery Girl. Why do the two gravitate toward each other? What does each get from the other? 15. Cosmopolitan magazine said, “Gaitskill’s clear, raw prose rips open notions of race, class, age, and what it means to love something greater than yourself.” How does the author open up notions of race, class, and age? 16. Did you find The Mare a hopeful novel? Was it depressing? How could it be both? 17. There are numerous instances of Velvet describing people as being like horses. Reread those passages and discuss: “We were moving like the horses” (p. 185); “This angry was big and warm like a horse” (p. 196); “They get beat down and locked up but still, when they run, nobody can stop them” (p. 288). 18. Describe Velvet’s relationship with Dominic. How does it contrast with Ginger’s relationships with men? Despite their age difference, are there similarities in their relationships with males? 19. Why is Velvet’s mother so opposed to her daughter riding horses? How do you think she feels at the end of the novel? 20. Ginger thinks at one raw point with Velvet, when she wonders if she’s doing any good in the girl’s life, “Maybe they really are different from us. More violent, more dishonest—nicer in some ways, yes, warm, physical, passionate . . . Everybody was right. I’m racist. At least now I know.” Why does she think so? How do you feel about the way race plays into the novel? How does Ginger try to connect with this girl from another background? How does she connect and how does she misstep? 21. "I can’t even be her pretend mother. I give in. I agree. I’m over. It is what it is. But I can still get her on that fucking horse. I can help her win” (p. 452). Discuss the significance of these lines spoken by Ginger in the context of the entire novel. 22. How does the author deal with Velvet’s preteen desire, evolving sexuality, and falling in love? How does she juxtapose it with Paul’s infidelity and Ginger’s fleeting interest in an abusive ex-boyfriend? 23. How does the author capture the energy and excitement and anxiety of horseback riding? 24. What do you think of the ending of The Mare?

Editorial Reviews

“Extraordinary. . . . [A] magnificently hopeful novel.” —The New York Times Book Review“Captivating. . . . A fascinating exploration of urban despair, female depression and sexual awakening.” —The Washington Post   “Brave and bold. . . . The range of Gaitskill’s humanity is astonishing.” —Los Angeles Times  “Gaitskill is such a preternaturally gifted writer that nearly every page of The Mare shimmers with exacting and sometimes hallucinatory observation.” —The New York Times   “A raw, beautiful story about love and mutual delusion.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR“[An] extraordinary artistic achievement. . . . Bracing in its rigorous truth-seeking, subtle and capacious in its moral vision, Gaitskill’s work feels more real than real life and reading her leads to a place that feels like a sacred space.” —The Boston Globe   “Remarkably tender. . . . A deeply affecting tribute to basic human connection.” —Entertainment Weekly   “The Mare is indebted, in its narrative strategy, to As I Lay Dying, another novel that employs a host of recurring narrators to get at the tangled intricacies of family life. . . . [Velvet] is that most wonderful of fictional creations: a convincing child who manages to be a captivating and perceptive narrator.” —The New Yorker   “[Gaitskill’s] gift is to unfold emotions, no matter how petty or upsetting, and describe them with disarming patience. . . . The result often feels both primal and electric, something like a latter-day D. H. Lawrence.” —Chicago Tribune   “Piercingly poignant. . . . Give[s] eloquent voice to the ineffable thoughts and feelings experienced across boundaries of age and race and class and gender—and even, in this case, species.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune   “Poetic, uplifting.” —San Francisco Chronicle   “Gaitskill is more than a gifted story-teller. She is an enchanter. . . . The power of [her] writing comes, in part, from her ability to evoke strong emotions without offering the resolutions readers have come to expect.” —New Republic   “The Mare ripples with internal emotional movement, but it is also a physical novel. . . . Nothing stands still, not the horses, not the violent mother or the would-be mother, not the vicious jealous friends, not the boyfriend or husband, not the sky.” —Cathleen Schine, The New York Review of Books   “The Mare is classic Gaitskill. . . . In [her] hands, even the most raw and fleeting moments drip with complexity.” —Elle   “Gaitskill builds her story through rotating first-person narratives. . . . [Her] structure allows her to spotlight the limitations in every character’s perspective while nevertheless fostering sympathy for each of them. And the voices ring true.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel   “To know these characters and to judge this book, you have to read every word, and be ready to have your own prejudices challenged.” —The Buffalo News   “I can think of no other living writer who so deftly feels into the corners of each of her characters’ emotions.” —Liz Cook, The Kansas City Star