Has Jane Smiley mellowed? After writing some of the most brilliant and ferocious fiction of the past 40 years — ”The Greenlanders,” “A Thousand Acres,” “Good Faith,” and “Private Life,” to name only a scarifying few — Smiley takes a gentler approach in “Perestroika in Paris.” Her main characters are animals, whose thoughts and feelings are described with matter-of-factness that gives the book a fable-like quality. Unlike in “Horse Heaven,” which also disclosed the inner lives of non-humans, the people these animals meet are well-meaning and generally kind. Their encounters take place in iconic Parisian settings that reinforce the dream-like mood: the Champ de Mars in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and a 100-year-old mansion surrounded by an ivy-covered fence. No need to worry that this setup presages treacly fantasy; Smiley’s tone may be genial, but she’s as tough-minded as ever.
Take, for example, the first meeting between the novel’s title character, a thoroughbred nicknamed Paras, and a shorthaired pointer named Frida. After winning a race at the Auteuil Racecourse, Paras has wandered out of an unlatched stall and ambled several kilometers to the Place du Trocadéro, a crowded thoroughfare where Frida has been scuffling to survive since the death of her owner Jacques, a homeless musician. This is a fable, so the animals can communicate with each other; it’s written by Smiley, so Frida approaches the thoroughbred with theft on her agenda. Paras is carrying her groom’s purse, casually picked up in her stall, and Frida knows that purses usually contain money; she saw people pull coins from them for Jacques when he played. Frida also sees that the sheltered racehorse is clueless about the uses of money: “A dog did not live all her life on the streets of Paris without learning how to recognize a sucker when she saw one.” Yet she ultimately decides against stealing the purse and befriends Paras; she’s been lonely since Jacques died and figures she can take charge of the money to feed them both.
Predatory behavior only partially relinquished is a fact of life for the animals Paras and Frida encounter on their odyssey: a philosophically inclined raven named Raoul; Sid and Nancy, a pair of mallards preparing to nest; an anxious black rat named Conrad and his son Kurt. “Mallards are fair game,” shudders Sid. “Owls at twilight, hawks during the day, foxes anytime, dogs for that matter.” Indeed, when Frida and Paras meet the mallards in a fenced-off corner of the Champ de Mars that becomes their refuge, Frida is hungry enough to justify Sid’s fears, but “she did not feel comfortable stalking and killing Sid and Nancy as she came to know them.” Later in the novel, when Kurt tells his father about Frida sheltering him from discovery on a busy street, Conrad snorts, “Must not have been hungry, then.”
Kurt and Conrad live in the walls of the once-grand home of Madame de Mornay, so blind and deaf as she approaches 100 that it’s reasonably plausible she doesn’t notice that her orphaned 8-year-old great-grandson Étienne has lodged Paras in the grand salon. Smiley is similarly meticulous in providing motives for Étienne, who spots Paras on the Champ de Mars and offers her shelter after a heavy snowstorm, and for the greengrocer who swaps food for money from the mouth of a dog he thinks is running errands for a house-bound owner, the baker who gives sugar to a horse she believes is a night-time apparition, and the gendarme who sees a horse entering a house and decides he had too much to drink the night before. Her animals have credible motives too. The same curiosity that took Paras from her unlatched stall across Paris leads her to follow Étienne into his great-grandmother’s house, while Frida refuses the same offer due to the fear of confinement she learned from Jacques. This is a fable, but it operates within realistic conventions.
As in all fables, Smiley’s animals have recognizably human personality traits, which provide much of the novel’s comic relief. Raoul is the sort of garrulous old gentleman who can be found on any big-city park bench, eager to impart the wisdom of age to indifferent juniors. Sid sounds like someone who just discovered therapy (“certain experiences I had as a duckling have had a strong impact on my worldview”) and Nancy is virtually a caricature of the overstressed wife and mother. Yet underpinning the novel’s abundant humor is a pervasive atmosphere of loneliness and longing for companionship felt by humans and animals alike. Brisk and unsentimental as always, Smiley nonetheless makes these emotions so palpable that readers are willing to accept that a relatively large number of people in a Parisian neighborhood would interact with a stray dog and a horse on the loose rather than calling Animal Control, and that an odd community of horse, dog, rats, and raven would gather around an 8-year-old threatened by the impending loss of his great-grandmother.
A stirring denouement at the Auteuil Racecourse leads to happy outcomes for Étienne and his animal friends, while piecing together the story of their adventures forges new bonds among the humans who helped them through the winter. All’s well that ends well, yet a plot rife with missed connections never lets us forget the truth of Raoul’s maxim, “Life is a chancy business.” After all, this is a Jane Smiley fable.
PERESTROIKA IN PARIS
By Jane Smiley
Knopf, 288 pp., $26.95
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at The American Scholar and the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America: 1931-1940.”