Perestroika in Paris: A Novel
- By Jane Smiley
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Sarahlyn Bruck
- December 4, 2020
The life-affirming grownup fable we all need right about now.
Perestroika — Paras for short — is a pampered racehorse who discovers late one November afternoon that her stall door has been left unfastened. She pushes it open and tastes a bit of freedom as she wanders out beyond the grounds.
“Paras had no idea of making a getaway. Not only did she like racing, and Delphine, and Rania, and her ‘owner,’ Madeleine, and several of the other horses, as well as her nice clean stall up there in Maisons-Laffitte, she really didn’t know much else — none of the horses did.”
But, as we’ve learned from the beginning, “Paras was a very curious filly,” and before she realizes how far she’s trotted, she has made her way into the heart of Paris, to the Place du Trocadéro, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.
Although Perestroika in Paris takes place in modern-day France, it has the feel and tone of a simpler time. As such, Jane Smiley’s latest novel might just be the perfect antidote for 2020. Readers looking for an escape from reality may find solace in this sweet fable for adults about an inquisitive Thoroughbred and all the creatures she encounters in her Parisian adventures.
Paras soon meets Frida, a German shorthaired pointer who’s a sensitive, smart, and oh-so-resourceful stray. Frida becomes Paras’ guide and friend. The horse eventually meets all sorts of other acquaintances, too: Raoul, a lonely raven; ducks Sid and Nancy, a mallard couple experiencing the cycle of life on a yearly timetable; and two rats, cautious Conrad and his son, Kurt, who wants to find a mate. All the animals feel the impact when Paras meets a young orphan, Etienne, and his great-grandmama, Madame de Mornay, an “old old woman,” who has known far too much tragedy in her 97 years.
Smiley ascribes to every animal a self-awareness that isn’t meant to be cute or precious or even humanizing but is instead insightful and introspective and feels true to each species. Paras often puzzles over the ideological differences between animals and humans. At one point, she asks Nancy, who has recently hatched a nest, the names of her ducklings:
“[Nancy] said, ‘I have no idea. It’s your mate who names you, not your mother.’ ‘For horses,’ said Paras, ‘it’s humans. Our dams just call us “sonny” or “honey.” But humans don’t seem to know the difference between two horses unless they name them, so we allow it.’ She confided in Nancy that, even if a horse didn’t have showy white markings, he or she always had distinctive cowlicks and dapplings and ways of moving. It was a mystery to all the racehorses that they had to wear not only jockeys but brightly colored cloths so that the humans could tell them apart. In even the most crowded race, every horse knew who was who. Some horses found the politics of it all quite nerve-racking, but, as a front-runner, Paras didn’t pay much attention to that.”
Perestroika in Paris sneaks up on you. As much as I enjoyed following the introspective musings of the animals, I soon became caught up in the fates of the humans. As the novel progressed, I grew more invested in Etienne and his great grandmama. When Paras, Frida, and the boy find and begin to take care of each other, we realize how on the edge Etienne and Madame de Mornay are living.
It’s up to the 8-year-old to feed and care for his blind and deaf elder. And while he’s clearly isolated, lonely, and overburdened now, he fears an even bleaker future when his great grandmama is no longer around. Paras, Etienne, Frida, Raoul, and Kurt all begin to understand their roles in this little household and that, to survive, they must rely on each other.
This is an unusual novel that rewards readers willing to cast aside their cynicism and let themselves be transported to Paris, to see the Trocadéro and Champs de Mars through the eyes of these intrepid creatures. Plenty of children’s books feature animals at their center, but fables for adults are rare. In Perestroika in Paris, Jane Smiley has created a world where kindness is king, and that’s exactly where I want to be.
Sarahlyn Bruck is a community-college writing professor and the author of two contemporary novels, Designer You and the forthcoming Daytime Drama. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.