This is from Jojo Moyes’ backlist, only recently published in the U.S. I am always glad for another book to read by this author!
The Horse Dancer tells the story of Sarah Lachapelle, who has just turned 14 when we first meet her. She lives alone with her grandfather, called Papa, since the death of her grandmother four years previously. After Nana died, Papa got a horse for Sarah to take their minds off of the loss. The horse, nicknamed Boo, is a Selle Français, a breed of sport horse from France renowned primarily for its success in show jumping. He has a “sweet, almost doglike nature,” and is unfazed by the heaviest traffic. This is helpful since Boo is housed in an urban stable yard in London. The yard is run by Cowboy John, one of the original members of the Philadelphia Black Cowboys.
Ron Tarver, “A Ride by North Philly Rows, 1993”
The Studio Museum in Harlem
[There is a century-long tradition of black urban cowboys and horsemanship in Philadelphia. Local horsemen maintain and care for horses, and teach neighborhood youth to do so as well. The horses are ridden throughout the city’s streets and parks, and regular races are held on an open strip of Fairmount Park called the Speedway. You can read more about the Philadephia Black Cowboys here. There is also an excellent middle grade book about them by G. Neri called Ghetto Cowboy. My review is here.)]
Denizen of Fletcher Street Stables in Philadelphia
Sarah’s Papa, Henri, used to be with the Cadre Noir in Saumur, France. This 250-year-old group of elite equestrian riders has been in existence since the 1700’s, and it was (and still is) an honor to be chosen for its academy. It’s mission (as stated on its website) is “to develop horse training, to teach riding for sport, and to teach the equestrian professions.”
Henri has been trying to train Sarah in the basics of dressage, an equestrian sport defined by the International Equestrian Federation as “the highest expression of horse training” in which “horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.” The horse learns to respond to minimal cues from the rider. As Sarah explains:
“It’s about trying to achieve the perfect communication. And a little movement of your finger on a rein or a tiny adjustment of weight might do that. . . . It’s not just technical – it’s about two minds, two hearts . . . trying to find a balance. It’s about what passes between you. . . . when Boo gets it… when we get it right together, there’s just no feeling like it.”
Sarah also studies the book used by Papa, On Horsemanship, a treatise on horsemanship by the Athenian historian and soldier Xenophon (c. 430 – 354 BC). This book is still considered to be the vade mecum for modern dressage, and a quote from the book precedes each chapter in The Horse Dancer.
Henri surprises Sarah with tickets to go to France and see the Cadre Noir, but then he is suddenly hospitalized by a debilitating stroke. Now Sarah is alone in their apartment, without money even for food, and without money to pay for the stabling of Boo. Cowboy John, who has been a friend of Henri’s for years, would cover Sarah, but he has decided to retire and go back to the States, selling the stables to a less than savory character named Maltese Sal. Maltese Sal offers to pay for Boo’s food and stabling, but for a price Sarah is loathe to pay.
Juxtaposed to Sarah’s story is that of Natasha, a 35-year-old Solicitor Advocate specializing in children’s cases at a high-pressure law firm. “Tash” is separated from her husband Mac, and is seeing another member of the firm, Conor.
Tash has her own consuming problems. Her marriage with Mac had disintegrated “slowly, from neglect.” But mainly it died because of misunderstandings that grew out of Natasha’s insecurities. Mac was a photographer and worked with many young beautiful models, all of whom found Mac charming and attractive. How could Natasha compete? Plus she had had three miscarriages in four years; why wouldn’t Mac prefer some young fertile beauty to her?
“…with each miscarriage, her confidence in her own femininity had shrunk. . . .She had begun to feel old, dried up inside. And there he stood, charming them, perhaps already planning some new relationship with a younger, more beautiful partner. One who would give him children. How could he be expected to hang around now?”
Tash also had a devasting situation at work, in which a child for whom she had advocated may have turned out to be a criminal. Now she has “lost faith in her ability to see whether I’m being taken for a ride.”
With each perceived “failure,” Natasha judges herself harshly, and projects that judgment onto others, letting those negative perceptions color her relationships.
Sarah and Tash, each drowning in her own way, improbably meet, and are metaphorically challenged with the life equivalent of the capriole – a gravity-defying leap in dressage. It is considered to be the most difficult of all the airs above the ground, or higher-level, Haute ecole, classical dressage movements in which the horse leaves the ground. Whether they can each manage to rise up from the low level their lives have pushed them is up in the air, so to speak.
Evaluation: Can Jojo Moyes write a bad book? I haven’t seen any evidence of it so far. This story is wonderful, and the ending is just lovely.
Published in Great Britain in 2009; published in the U.S. by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017