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June 23, 2008

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Posted by carol
I picked up The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein back in March. I read it quickly, and I've been savoring it since then. When I closed it I immediately thought --- this is the perfect book club discussion book. Here, in her own inimitable style, blog contributor Debra Linn shares why this book will work for groups. Reader response to it has been amazing. For the record, everyone to whom I have given or told about this book has told at least six more people about it --- and in many cases bought multiple copies. Read on and see why people are falling in love with Racing and with the novel's canine narrator, Enzo...

I don't like dogs.

You don't like auto racing.

So, let's choose a book narrated by a dog about a race car driver for our book club.


No, this isn't part of my belief that you don't have to like the book for it to be a good book-club book. This is The Art of Racing in the Rain. Attention and praise have been heaped on Garth Stein's new novel --- can you say Starbucks' Summer Pick? --- and rightly so. And much of the heaping has been about the dog, that adorable dog on the book cover, that adorable dog in the quite fabulous trailer for the book (yes, a trailer --- that's what happens when the author is also a documentary filmmaker).

Then, the auto racing part is right there in the title. Can't miss it. Heck, the dog is even named Enzo after Enzo Ferrari, the most famous of all auto racing names.

Dogs and auto racing. Just picture yourself pitching this book at your group's next meeting. Tough sell.

But The Art of Racing in the Rain isn't about dogs or auto racing. It's about the people. The best books always are. These people have a dog and auto racing in their lives. Just like the people in Bel Canto have opera and kidnapping in their lives. You don't need to know anything about either to embrace the characters and learn about all of them. That's the beauty of fiction and the joy of book clubbing.

Still, dogs and auto racing are inextricably linked with what makes The Art of Racing in the Rain a good book. That's the beauty of good fiction.

Making a dog the narrator is inspired --- and remember, I don't dig dogs. As Enzo points out right at the beginning, he can't talk and doesn't have opposable thumbs. These limitations force the reader to become more involved with the story, to see situations from a knee-high view of the world and trust people's faces more than their words, as Enzo does. Enzo also gets to witness situations other characters aren't privy to. So, he ends up with both a detached and omniscient voice (please insert your own omniscient-voice-means-godlike-and-god-is-dog-spelled-backward train of thought here).

Auto racing doesn't drive the story (by law, I had to use the verb "drive" in this sentence), but it is also more than just metaphor. Auto racing is visual and auto racing is character development. The main character's struggles and skills --- particularly his ability to drive well in the rain --- create the framework of Denny's character, but his interactions with his wife, daughter and, of course, dog define him. And to understand all the symbolism of the ability to drive in the rain, just picture your own hands gripping the wheel during a summer rainstorm on a city street. After all, "hands are the window to a man's soul," as Enzo says.

And books a window into book clubs. I still don't like dogs, and you don't like auto racing. That's why we should read The Art of Racing in the Rain, which really is about neither but entirely about discussing and learning --- and perfect for your book club. What it IS, is one great book club discussion book.

---Debra Linn