Perestroika in Paris: A novel

Image of Perestroika in Paris: A novel
Release Date: 
December 1, 2020
Reviewed by: 

“whether you approach this novel as a fable or an allegory or a light adventure or a study in kindness, even just a magical profile of Paris, you’ll find top-level writing and storytelling.”

For people who love animals, particularly if they love animal stories, and especially if they love stories with animal characters who think and speak for themselves in their own frame of reference (compared to humans in animal form), then this book is a win-win-win.

Perhaps we should call it a Triple Crown, for it’s about a Thoroughbred racehorse.

Perestroika—Paras for short—is a “very curious filly” who’s also a winning hurdler in France. One evening, after everything in the barn winds down after she won a big race, Paras discovers her stall door isn’t latched tight. She noses it opens and takes a stroll, grabbing her groom’s purse on the way. Having just won “a purse” in her race, she thinks the one outside her door is meant for her.

Roaming free is a new experience for a pampered and valuable racehorse, so as a curious filly Paras wants to look around while chance allows. Before the night is over she has found her way from the countryside outside Paris to the city heart. Lucky for her, Paris contains many greenspaces and complex by-ways and inner-focused people, so it’s surprisingly easy for a horse to escape attention.

During her peregrinations Paras meets a street-smart dog, Frida, who has just lost her human. Like Paras, Frida is wandering around unmoored. But she knows the city well and guides Paras to temporary refuge. She also takes command of the purse, because she understands what it is and what it contains: money.

Frida knows that money means food, having lived most of her life with a street busker. He also taught her cute-dog tricks to charm people into contributing if his music wasn’t enough. She uses the purse’s contents and her charm to keep herself and Paras safe.

Meanwhile, they are not invisible. A few humans notice either or both the unattended dog and horse, and interact with them, but for varying personal reasons they make no effort to catch the animals or advertise their presence. Which doesn’t help Paras’ trainer, who searches for her, fruitlessly, for months.

Horse and dog are also observed then befriended by Raoul, an aging raven. For a happy while they all live in the city’s parklands, along with Sid and Nancy, a pair of mallard ducks.

But then winter comes, and life isn’t so easy anymore. That’s when Étienne steps in. He’s an eight-year-old orphan caring for his blind and deaf great-grandmother in a big old family home with a walled courtyard. He lures Paras into this shelter—even into the huge empty house (where she meets Kurt and Claude, the reigning rats)—and gives her food and love while discovering the nascent equestrian in himself. At night he leaves the gate open so Paras can continue her explorations.

So far, this sounds like a simple and gentle tale. Which it is. What makes it outstanding is the author’s mastery of story craft and prose.

Jane Smiley has spent most of her life studying, doing, and teaching creative writing. That she knows her craft is validated by the Pulitzer Prize she won a few novels ago. In this novel her skill brings us a seamless narrative and fascinating, unique scenario. You open the book and are immediately absorbed. There is nothing to trip on. The sentences, the evocation of characters and place, work together from beginning to end. Although the book has a literary tone, readers from 8 to 80 can understand every word and find within its pages the nature of story that best suits them.

Readers who might not connect with this novel are those who like fast, snappy writing and lots of action. Perestroika in Paris a quiet book, and the drama relates to ordinary lives. It presents a diverse cast of characters and slowly weaves their circumstances together until they have to make important life choices that hinge on each other, all at the same time.

Smiley also excels at writing from multiple viewpoints. For any author it’s challenging enough to do this with human characters; Smiley does it convincingly across species. (Anyone who has read her novel Horse Heaven will recognize her technique.)

So whether you approach this novel as a fable or an allegory or a light adventure or a study in kindness, even just a magical profile of Paris, you’ll find top-level writing and storytelling. Many reviewers have described Perestroika in Paris as an antidote to our troubled times. They’re right. It will be hard for most folks to read this story and not feel good from page one to the inevitable ending.