This first novel by Sara Gruen, Riding Lessons, is a deftly woven tale of tragic loss and eventual redemption. At the age of eighteen, at the apex of a promising career as an Olympic-caliber rider, Annemarie Zimmer suffers a fall that ultimately claims the life of her beloved horse, Harry, and leaves her struggling to recover from her severe injuries. Twenty years later, her life is crumbling before her weary eyes. Annemarie is downsized out of her job, her daughter is stirring up typical teenage trouble, her husband leaves her for a much younger woman, and her father is diagnosed with an incurable, debilitating disease. And believe it or not, things deteriorate even farther from there.
Annemarie returns home with her daughter, Eva, to the place where her Olympic dreams lay tattered on a shelf, heavy with dust and cobwebs. It isn’t long before the past begins to haunt her, taking Annemarie back to the beginning of the path she chose so long ago, but can see clearly now the error of her decisions.
"Before the accident it had been so clear, but afterward, it was as if someone had turned the pencil upside down, erased my future, then casually brushed the crumbled remnants off of the page."
Then a horse turns up, courtesy of her former boyfriend-turned-veterinarian and horse rescuer, that bears a striking resemblance to her beloved Harry – a horse with one in a million coloring. What are the odds that another horse bears such an unusual striped pattern? Thinking they are closely related, Annemarie does some research. What she finds is enough to send her teetering-on-the-edge life careening over the brink of her control.
Gruen does a wonderful job creating rich, complex characters in this first novel. Either she is a first-rate researcher, or she has first-hand knowledge of both the horse world and Lou Gehrig’s Disease, because the detail and emotional currents are too deep for mere guess-work. Together, all of it makes a more-than-believable story – every sentence rings true to the reader, the characters have deep motivation and emotionality, and the setting is as vivid as a watercolor painting.
As a former horseback rider, who drifted away from the passion toward a life of domestic responsibilities, I can empathize with Annemarie and the choices she made along the way. Her plight is inspiring, and I find myself flipping through the phone book for local stables in, looking for the right place to start riding again. If Annemarie can find herself again amidst stall cleaning and tending horses, then maybe there is hope for this old mom yet! As the book says, "Horsepower is...the extraordinary capacity of a horse to elevate the human spirit."