Saturday, May 31, 2014

Review: Boleto by Alyson Hagy

I was never one of those little girls who wanted a pony for Christmas. Horses were just not that high on my list. I did, of course, read all the horse books though, Misty of Chincoteague, Black Beauty, Sea Star, and so on. But even those equine paeans didn't inspire a request for a horse from Santa. And perhaps because of my general disinterest, even as an adult Western set novels don't automatically jump out at me, teasing me to take them home. But somehow Alyson Hagy's novel about a Wyoming cowboy and the gorgeous filly he intends to train as a polo pony snagged my awareness and stayed there, calling to me to read it. This is no simple story about a cowboy and his horse though. It is a gorgeously written, long, slow unveiling coming of age novel.

Will Testerman is a quiet third son whose family ranch is rich in land but nothing else. Will is back on the ranch but he has plans to leave, to make his mark in his own considered way. After buying the young filly he names Ticket because she is going to be his ticket to his future, he devotes himself to training her, gentling her. His own quiet manner with horses secures him jobs as he works towards getting himself and his girl to the California ranch of Don Enrique, a wealthy polo horse breeder and owner. Will's own quiet, generally gentle acceptance of life serves him well with horses but leaves him as a bit of an emotionally closed observer with people, even those with whom he seems to have been closest, his family, an ex-girlfriend, and a friend who mysteriously disappeared. As Will moves through his time training the filly, he is more naturally attuned to animals than people, content to follow his own conscience and long-standing dreams even as this way of life inevitably leads him to the emotionally charged, gut-wrenchingly necessary ending to the novel.

This is not a splashy novel. It is an elegant, constrained character study, calm and considered with a certain serenity to the narrative. The prose is simple yet evocative and the various settings provide stunning backdrops to the story. Hagy is clearly a poet, choosing each word with care and she is masterful at subtly increasing the tension as the story moves along. The way in which failure and loss are used as defining and clarifying moments is impressive, with each loss carrying an important lesson about people and life. Told in three sections, corresponding to three stages in Will's coming of age, there are some frustratingly dropped plot threads as one section shifts to another and the pacing is sometimes overly slow and measured. But the writing is beautifully crafted. Yes, this is a novel about a cowboy and his horse but it is also about the scope of life, the complications, disappointments, and perfidy of human relationship as contrasted to human animal interactions, and the privilege and rights of wealth. In the end, the reader will ache with Will for all he has learned and for the high cost of his learning.

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