The Horsewoman

Review by Nancy Brannon

The Horsewoman, a novel by James Patterson and Mike Lupica, is about three generations of horsewomen, the Atwoods: grandmother Caroline, daughter Maggie, and granddaughter Becky McCabe, who have a stable of show jumping horses in Wellington, Florida. Maggie has long held ambitions for the Olympics, but at the beginning of the book, she has an accident on a trail ride on her show jumper Coronado. Evidently the horse was spooked by a fox (really? foxhunters know better), rears and falls on Maggie, doing serious damage to her pelvis and knee. The horse runs back to the barn riderless, but Becky decides she will ride Coronado back on the trail because he will take her to her mother. (Seriously? This is not Lassie and Timmy.) Of course, the horse does, and Becky finds her mother unconscious, calls 911, and her mother is taken to the hospital where she undergoes surgery.

While the mother is recovering, daughter Becky exercises her mother’s horse Coronado along with her own show jumper, Sky.

Becky’s coach, Daniel Ortega (editor’s note: not to be confused with José Daniel Ortega the former President of Nicaragua.) is Mexican by birth, where his parents still reside, but he has DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status in the U.S. and is regularly in fear of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) deporting him.

Maggie’s coach, Gus Bennett, was headed to the Olympics in 2008 when a show jumping accident (fall) paralyzed him and curtailed his ever riding again, so he now gets around (quite well) in a wheelchair. He is a stereotypical grumpy, strict, abrasive coach, who we find out later also has a romantic side.

Another stereotypical character is Steve Gorton, the rich co-owner of Coronado who is egotistical, self-serving, brash, and manipulative – only out to make money and get his way however he can.

The novel is written on a Young Adult reading level, maybe targeting the “text and tweet” readers, but I would not recommend it for readers ages 12-18. The characters’ dialog and the narrative are rife with unnecessary profanity and there is heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages. Most of the characters’ dialog is spent bickering with each other, as they are competitive and self-serving, and their only ambition in life is to win.

I hate to say it, but the plot of this book is three-legged lame, although the authors do interject plenty of ups and downs so that it’s not all smooth sailing for the Atwood women to get to the Olympics. Just when things seem to be going well in the horse show arena for Becky and Maggie, “something” happens (described in the book by an idiomatic expression involving manure). It might be a wrong distance to a jump, a refusal, or a fall.

Or the horse has cellulitis and the Atwood women call the veterinarian, Doc Howser, who won’t know the prognosis until the lab reports come back. When they do, Doc Howser makes a special trip to the gym where Maggie and Becky are working out to tell them that the horse will be fine. (Do you know a veterinarian who does that?)

The two redeeming characters are Daniel Ortega and Becky’s Dad, who is a clever New York lawyer. Becky’s parents are divorced, and her Dad shows up as a deus ex machina to save Ortega from jail and deportation by the stereotypical ICE officers, who are decidedly prejudiced against people of Mexican origin.

Despite all the falls and pitfalls, the mother and daughter both make it to the Paris Olympics on the U.S. Show Jumping team with their two horses Coronado and Sky.

The denouement, “Paris,” is almost superfluous since the two women have achieved their goal. What remains to be achieved is an Olympic Gold Medal. Twice in the last chapter the authors have Becky think, “Maybe this is the way the story is supposed to end.” Maybe the authors should have taken their character’s thoughts to heart.

This novel paints a negative image of Grand Prix and Olympic show jumping riders. The riders that I know, while they are competitive, are not petty, selfish, and backbiting like the characters in this book. They are far more amenable and helpful with their fellow riders, and are horsemen and horsewomen, who take care of the whole horse. This novel should more accurately be titled “The Riders” since Maggie and Becky only ride their horses, while their grooms bring their horses to them already tacked and ready to ride, as well as take care of their horses after their rides. It’s the grooms and the two trainers who are the horsemen.

An excellent example of a real-life Olympic show jumping gold medalist who is a true horsewoman is Melanie Smith Taylor, who still continues educating herself and others about horse care and training. Check out her book, Riding with Life: Lessons from the Horse.

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