First, I saw the film before I read the book, so that has prejudiced my reaction somewhat.
This is the story of a family that has been fractured by a monumental accident. Grace Maclean is a twelve year old girl, the daughter of very wealthy New Yorkers. Her father, Robert is a lawyer and her mother Annie is a magazine editor, an English woman.
Grace’s embrace of life is fullsome and the reader is drawn to her immediately. Robert Maclean is also an extremely sympathetic character. Annie, however is a driven woman. After taking over at the magazine, she has instituted a “bloodletting” by firing old staffers and has alienated not only those she works with, but her husband and daughter as well.
The first unfortunate decision Nicholas Evans made was to feature the most despicable character in the book and set her up as the centerpiece of the action.
But the book still begins with tremendous promise. The writing is excellent, the descriptions so precise as to engender the feeling that one is living in the moments and places he creates. Grace is riding her horse, Pilgrim, with her friend Judith at the country estate that the Macleans own. Her father has come down from New York with her, while Annie works away in the Big Apple. On an icy road, the horses panic as a tractor trailer advances on them, skidding on the ice itself. Grace is thrown off as her horse Pilgrim turns to face the oncoming semi and literally leaps at it trying to protect her rider.
Judith and her horse are both killed, Pilgrim is severely wounded and Grace’s leg is mangled so severely that it must be amputated. There is severe psychological trauma for both Grace and Pilgrim. The horse is crazed and completely uncontrollable. While Robert reacts in much the way one would expect a parent to, Annie controls her emotions completely, but becomes obsessed with finding a cure for Pilgrim.
That cure comes in the form of Tom Booker, a cowboy and rancher in Montana who is a “horse whisperer”. He has the ability to calm and cure horses with psychological problems. At first, he refuses to work with Pilgrim. Annie’s persistence, which includes driving her daughter and the horse to Montana, finally pays off once Tom meets Grace and sees that the problem runs deeper than just an injured horse. He takes on Pilgrim as a project and Annie and Grace move to the spare house at the ranch so that Grace can work with Tom as he slowly brings Pilgrim back to life.
At this point, the story has been told so expertly that a reader cannot disengage no matter what. The story has been wonderfully drawn as the tale of a family that has fallen apart, a girl and horse painfully and perhaps permanently wounded and the calm man who can supply the solutions to cure them all.
Unfortunately, it is also at the point that Evans strays from his story and inserts a romance that has no business being in this book. By having Annie fall for Tom, the reader comes to vilify her and see her as the selfish, arrogant bitch that she apparently is. Further, the character of Tom, initially so strong and admirable, becomes a parody — the cowboy who can’t help falling in love with city women. Why on earth this calm and centered human being could fall in love with one of the most unlikable characters ever written is a complete mystery that has no answer, except that it adds a level of melodrama that brings the book to a complete halt. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if it had merely been a flirtation that Tom turned his back on (in order to work on the horse, which is what the story is really about), but Evans does not stop when given the chance. He creates a little vacation for Tom’s ranch family — to Disneyland of all places — so that Tom can spend a week having sex with Annie.
At this point, the story has become thoroughly disgusting and all of the promise has permanently departed. After the week of sex, Grace finds out, of course, and takes Pilgrim out on some kind of crazy ride. It says a great deal that the reader finds their own disgust reflected in Grace. In rescuing Grace, Tom allows himself to get killed. Now, what’s going on with that is also a complete mystery.
Lost in this tawdry little subplot is the final cure of Pilgrim, which should have been built correctly so that it provided the denouement of the story that Evans so carefully set up during most of the book. It becomes almost a little side show as Tom and Annie wallow in lust and self-pity.
I guess the bottom line is that every author should have an editor with a steady hand who can say, “Stop — you’re going in the wrong direction.” But with the state of publishing any more, it may even have been an editor who said, “You need some romance in this book.”
It’s a great pity to see a story with so much promise flushed down the drain.