Maternal Instincts

Mary Gaitskill’s novel uses the story of a young girl and a horse to ask: Does motherhood make you a “normal” woman?

Illustration by Andrew DeGraff.

Illustration by Andrew DeGraff

Mary Gaitskill is a poet of paradox: a writer aware of life’s contradictions, of the way that beauty comingles with ugliness, the way cruelty coexists with love. She writes women who are self-destructive and emotionally detached. Many of her female characters ran away as teenagers (most left home at 16—that age is often an emotional turning point in her work); many end up working briefly as prostitutes; most have masochistic streaks—their love affairs are always obsessive and painful. In Gaitskill’s fiction, characters yearn for connection, but connections are always fraught. And intimacy involves humiliation.

Gaitskill is not squeamish about sex or violence—her first collection of stories, Bad Behavior, established her willingness to explore the underbelly of American urban life—and her prose is taut and cool. She writes frankly and precisely about pain, but has never been sentimental or conventional.

So the most surprising thing about Gaitskill’s new novel, The Mare, is how conventional it is. It has a conventional linear structure, a conventional coming-of-age plot. Its heroine, young Velveteen “Velvet” Vargas, helps peg the book as an explicit homage to two beloved children’s classics, National Velvet and The Velveteen Rabbit. (Readers of Margery Williams’ book may recall that it is the Skin Horse who tells the Velveteen Rabbit, “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”)

Gaitskill, whose fiction has long resided in the grit of cities (New York, Paris, San Francisco, Detroit), has moved to the country with The Mare—a move echoed by that of Velvet, a poor Dominican girl from Brooklyn who, thanks to the Fresh Air Fund, visits a white couple upstate in the Hudson Valley town of Red Hook. Ginger, the 47-year-old who hosts Velvet, is an artist who has recently left the city. And she has finally settled down after years of destructive love affairs and bad behavior. She has married Paul, a professor whom she met at an AA meeting; Paul has a college-aged daughter from his first marriage, but he and Ginger have no children of their own. They decide to host a Fresh Air Fund kid as an experiment, to see if they might eventually want to adopt a child. In addition to yearning for children, Ginger is grieving for her sister Melinda, who died suddenly of a stroke. (Gaitskill’s characters often have troubled sisters.)

When the 11-year-old Velvet arrives, Ginger’s maternal instincts kick in. She buys Velvet a bike; she cooks for her and calls her “Princess”; she sings lullabies and reads The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at bedtime. Velvet’s presence creates a portal of sorts: Like the kids in C.S. Lewis’ book, both Velvet and Ginger cross into a magical kingdom. For Ginger, the magic is in getting to play parent. Mothering a child, even temporarily, is a kind of awakening. For Velvet, the enchantment comes when she visits the stables next to Ginger and Paul’s house. She describes her initial visit as if she’s in a story: “We passed through a gate with a sign that said ‘Wildwood’; suddenly there was too much space around us—green and green and green with some little fences and in the distance a big building with a giant hole for a door.”

Velvet, like the heroine in National Velvet, turns out to be a natural with horses. She easily learns to ride and is drawn to “Fugly Girl,” a horse who was once abused and is now considered dangerous. Velvet has a special connection with this difficult horse and renames the mare “Fiery Girl.”

The Mare’s short chapters are narrated in the first person by Velvet and Ginger, and occasionally by Paul and Mrs. Vargas, Velvet’s mother. These voices provide multiple points of view as Velvet continues to regularly visit Ginger and Paul for several years. The book touches on the ensuing racial and class tensions, but it’s most compelling in its exploration of motherhood and femininity.  

Ginger remembers her own mother, who died shortly after her sister did, with tenderness. But Velvet has a difficult relationship with her mother, who often punishes her, yet dotes on her younger brother, Dante. Mrs. Vargas doesn’t want her daughter riding horses—she’s afraid Velvet will get hurt. But Ginger knows Velvet needs to ride—it’s the only thing giving the girl confidence. And so the two maternal figures, who can’t communicate directly with each other (Mrs. Vargas doesn’t speak English; Ginger doesn’t speak Spanish), struggle over the girl they both love. Ginger calls Velvet to help her with her homework; the illiterate Mrs. Vargas assures Velvet that education is useless for girls. Mrs. Vargas is a firm disciplinarian, who sometimes beats her daughter, while Ginger is a gentle mentor, who never yells. This contrast in styles is mirrored at the stable, where one trainer, Beverly, physically disciplines the horses, while another, Pat, does not. Beverly maintains that beatings are useful: “You used to be able to beat a kid who acted bad. And guess what, kids learned fast, just like horses.”

And the hard-to-tame mare gets penned in as a blunt metaphor. Ginger observes: “I thought of the way [Velvet] said ‘My mare,’ like ‘mah mare,’ or ‘ma mère’—my mother in French.” And later in the book, Gaitskill drives the point home even further when Mrs. Vargas compares herself directly to her daughter’s mare: “I am locked inside hardness and nothingness and I can’t get out. Like the horse Velvet talks about, the one who kicks the wall. Striking the hard thing, trying to break it. No one sees, no one hears.”

The women—Ginger, Velvet, Mrs. Vargas, the trainers at the stable—are the soul of this novel. Though Paul narrates some chapters, and though the fraying of his marriage to Ginger is a subplot, he is a forgettable character. (His main role is to comment on what he perceives as his wife’s unhealthy obsession with mothering Velvet; he recognizes his wife’s addictive behaviors.) Women, in Gaitskill’s fiction, are always fierce. As Pat, the horse trainer with a heart of gold, says to Velvet:

The thing about mares? They will always draw a line in the sand. Stallions, geldings, they can be tough. But while a mare’ll take a lot of shit, eventually she will draw a line in the sand, and when she does that—cross it and she is going to take you down, even if she has to die doing it. Just like a woman. It’s why some people don’t like mares.

Meanwhile, Beverly, the other horse trainer, wears a T-shirt that says, “Beware the Mare.”

Author Mary Gaitskill.
Author Mary Gaitskill.

Photo by Derek Shapton

Gaitskill has long been preoccupied with the way that women judge each other—much of her work deals with the complicated relationships between women. (Veronica, her novel that was a 2005 finalist for the National Book Award, is brilliant on this subject.) And The Mare is no different. At school in Brooklyn, Velvet is excluded by mean girls. And upstate, Ginger has always felt ostracized by Paul’s ex-wife and her friends: “They all have kids and they all act like bitches to me.” But once Velvet is in her life, Ginger is able to connect with those other women. The vocabulary of parenthood—chores, homework, riding lessons—gives Ginger a conversational bridge. When she talks about Velvet, other women are suddenly interested. Even Paul’s daughter, Edie, responds to Ginger now. As Ginger says to Paul, “Can’t you see how good it is for me? Don’t you see how even Edie finally respects me? She finally sees me as a normal woman. I am a normal woman. I want to be normal.” But Mrs. Vargas sees Ginger in a different light: “Mostly she looked immature, more girl than woman—a sad girl trying to be happy. Una sufrida—what else could she be, married but not one child?”

Does motherhood make you a “normal” woman? Ginger’s sense of her own femininity is tied up in a rite of passage she missed. And Mrs. Vargas views the childless woman as suffering. This is rich emotional territory, well worth investigating, but Gaitskill is often too telling in The Mare. She approaches her characters’ feelings directly, rather than from the more oblique, surprising angles one associates with her earlier books. Ginger, discussing Paul’s ex-wife, says, “Sometimes I don’t care what Becca says; other times it cuts. It cuts when I feel myself small and insignificant against her and her friends and their big proud bodies.” Compare the blunt dullness of those “big proud bodies” to the sharper way the narrator of Veronica describes her interactions with her fellow New Yorkers:

I felt it in their fixed outthrust faces, their busy rigid backs, their jiggling jewelry, their creeping and swagger. I felt it in the office workers who perched in flocks on the concrete flower boxes of giant corporate banks, eating their lunches over crossed legs and rumpled laps, the wind blowing their hair in their chewing mouths and waves of scabby pigeons surging at their feet, eating the bits that fell on the pavement.

The precision and menace of those images—the “busy rigid backs,” the “waves of scabby pigeons surging at their feet”—give the reader a visceral sense of the speaker’s relation to the people around her. She feels isolated—she is not a member of the perching flock—but also energized by the cruelty and raw beauty of the city.

On Velvet’s first visit to Red Hook, Ginger shows the girl some of her paintings. When Velvet sees a portrait that Ginger did of her late sister, she says, “Why don’t you do a real picture of her?” Ginger tells Velvet that she doesn’t do “representational or figurative work.” This baffles Velvet. So Ginger gives it a try:

I decided to work from two pictures, one from when Melinda was ten and seriously beautiful, and another when she was a thick-necked, swollen-faced adult, some teeth already gone, her eyes dulled but still with a hard glitter deep in them…I decided I’d put both Melindas in the same picture. I wanted to foreground the smiling, disfigured adult and have the pretty, sweet-faced child in the background. It was harder than I thought. I was unpracticed and couldn’t make the lines properly expressive. The adult Melinda was comic, nearly pumpkin-faced, the child wraithlike and weird. After dinner I came back to try again. This time I put them together, one half of the face a child, the other half an adult.

This novel, with its alternating perspectives of girl and woman (half and half, like Ginger’s painting) and linear narrative, seems like Gaitskill’s attempt at a “real” picture. A writer should feel free to experiment with new forms, and there is much admirable feeling in this book, but devoted Gaitskill fans are likely to miss the compression and weirdness of her signature work.

At her best, Gaitskill fractures moments and reassembles them in surprising ways, illuminating larger truths about humanity. “The Other Place,” a story she published in the New Yorker in 2011, is, like The Mare, a story about parenthood. The narrator is a loving father who is also a deeply disturbed man. He’s aroused by the idea of violence against women and worried that his beloved son will inherit his sick tendency. That story—moving, unsettling, suspenseful—subverts notions of parenthood. The protagonist is so self-aware and so devoted to his son that we can’t dismiss him, despite his dark obsessions. It’s an extraordinary story—dangerous and deep.

But The Mare is bridled. In this book, Gaitskill is on her best behavior.

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill. Knopf.

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