Sara Gruen deserves props for ruining her protagonist's life in a quick and efficient manner. In the same day, Annemarie is fired from her job ("laid off") and her husband leaves her for a juicy 21-year-old. A few weeks later, she learns her daughter has dropped out of school and her father has ALS.
In case that seems over the top to you, that's because it is.
After relocating to New Hampshire with her daughter to help her mother take care of her father, Annemarie finds that she isn't good at any of the following things: managing a stable, dealing with customers, cooking, disciplining her daughter, relating to her daughter, and letting go of the past.
I don't mean to sound snarky, because Riding Lessons doesn't deserve too much snark. It does deserve a slap on the wrist and some sort of tether to reality. There's just too much hardship going on, too many things going wrong. It's overwhelming, which isn't good for the reader. Fiction has to make more sense than reality does. It may be the case that someone very much like Annemarie exists and has to deal with all of these problems at once—real life need not conform to the rules of storytelling.
Neither does storytelling, of course, but they are convenient guidelines. Riding Lessons completely ignores them. Annemarie's divorce is only ever peripheral, brushed aside as often as it comes to the forefront like the annoying, hovering cousin at a family reunion. Nothing comes of the revelation that her mother assisted her father's suicide. And that's a big one. Regardless of one's position on it, euthanasia is a big issue, but Gruen ignores any of the possible ramifications of assisted suicide here.
And therein lies the flaw with having everything go wrong. With so much happening, so much to resolve before the inevitable end, important things get neglected. The divorce doesn't get as much time as it needs. Euthanasia becomes a sidebar, something routine. Likewise, Annemarie's antics, which are always irrational and border on illegal at times, never result in someone sitting her down and telling her, point-blank, to grow up and act like an adult. To her credit, Annemarie does change, and that's one reason I liked Riding Lessons despite its over-the-top plot. Annemarie shows she's capable of recognizing her mistakes and rectifying them, even if she's just as bad at doing that as she is at whatever caused the mistake in the first place.
But if we're honest with ourselves here, do we really expect that this will turn out poorly for Annemarie? No, we don't. I'm not going to delve into the land of spoilers—and that negative isn't a spoiler, because we never thought the ending would turn out otherwise. From the beginning of the book, there's a guarantee that there will be a semi-happy ending, some sort of reassurance that no matter how unrealistically screwed one is, life can get better.
As previously mentioned, I did like Annemarie's characterization. The characterization in general is the saving grace of Sara Gruen. For example, any conversation between Eva and Annemarie or between Annemarie and Mutti (as she refers to her mother) is priceless, because Gruen captures the daughter-mother dynamic perfectly. (Not that I've ever been on either end of such a dynamic myself.) Likewise, Jean-Claude's discussions with Annemarie about his daughter were interesting (the scenes where he feels her up, less so). Any scene in which Annemarie asserts herself, excepting her overreactions to her daughter, was usually entertaining. Gruen's good with the theatrics.
So Riding Lessons is not a lost cause. I'm not sure that I'll read the sequel. This book is closer to the romance end of the literary fiction spectrum for me to enjoy it overly much, and there's so much else I'd like to read. Though it could use improvements, and though I'm not as enthusiastic about it as Water for Elephants, Riding Lessons works—with an extra helping of suspension of disbelief.