Flying Changes follows Sara Gruen’s Riding Lessons, picking up with the same characters just a few months later. It exhibits pretty much the same strengths and weaknesses as the earlier book: the heroine is occasionally unbearable, the animal characters come close to upstaging the humans, and there’s really too much going on. But the big thing is, Sara Gruen’s prose is incredibly readable. I knew from the get-go that eventually I was going to collapse on the couch and churn through this book until the end. Never mind that the narrative was predictable from the beginning, in outline if not in detail. I couldn’t have cared less. So, there’s a subplot that peters out into nothing. So, the romantic interest is not much more than a warm body (a horse called Joe has a much more carefully thought-out personality). As if to amp up the emotional hold on the reader, this time Gruen introduces a baby. And a cat — oh, gosh, kittens, too! It’s OK, I’m putty in her hands.
And this is because of the quality of her prose. It’s not so much that she’s a good writer, which she is. Descriptive, so vivid, lively, clever, funny. Good ear for dialogue, her characters talk like people you know, in sentence fragments and with circular logic. The pacing is good: she spends the right amount of time dwelling on the important scenes and gets in and out of them gracefully. More than that, though, she has the magic quality and try as I might through this reading, I can’t quite define it.
Curtis Sittenfeld has it. I didn’t really enjoy American Wife but I couldn’t have put it down. Rosamund Pilcher and Maeve Binchy have it — but a lot of writers of that kind of pleasant house-and-home fiction don’t. I think it’s something about one sentence leading into the next, a kind of rhythm? Maybe it’s the way the writing involves all of the senses? Here’s Annemarie relaxing on the back of her horse Hurrah, while he’s resting in his stall. “I lie back, my legs slack and my head resting on his rump. His spine is padded and warm and slightly indented. I love the feel of my vertebrae stretched out along his. We fit like a zipper.” Pretty indelible.