A runaway 3-year-old racehorse, a dog who's lost her master, an aging know-it-all raven, a handsome black rat looking for love, and an 8-year-old orphan caring for his ancient great-grandmama in the shabby grandeur of her Parisian home. Let's just say this book is exceedingly charming and get that out of the way.
The prodigious Jane Smiley, after immersing us in the often grim reality of America in her Last Hundred Years Trilogy, offers a reprieve in the enchanted world of "Perestroika in Paris." It's still our time, or thereabouts, but this might as well be the Paris of Madeline; the neighborhood is neat and leafy; the animals are amiable and accommodating; the people — gardener, gendarme, shopkeepers — are generous and kind; and no one seems to notice that a horse has moved into Madame de Mornay's house on the Rue Marinoni.
The horse has wandered out of her stall after a race, rambled through the woods, and found herself in the Place de Trocadéro, where she befriends Frida, an elegant German shorthaired pointer whose owner Jacques, a busker, has recently died, leaving Frida at very loose ends. "They call me Paras," the horse introduces herself, "but my real name is Perestroika, by Moscow Ballet out of Mapleton, by Big Spruce."
Guided by the raven ("Sir Raoul Corvus Corax, the twenty-third of that name"), Paras and Frida move to greener or at least more hospitable pastures across the Seine in the Champ de Mars, a giant park anchored by the Eiffel Tower (or, as the animals refer to it, the Tour). On her way out of the racetrack, Paras has conveniently managed to swipe her groom's purse ("she had, in fact, just won a purse, and so, she thought, this would certainly be it"), which gives Frida, who has some experience with money, the means to do a little grocery shopping.
How the grocer and butcher react to a dignified dog proffering bills and nosing items, and how the baker finds oats for a horse happening by in the wee hours, is endearing indeed; but sweetest of all is the curious and delicate courting of Paras by the little boy, Etienne.
What happens next is perfectly logical in the gentle world Smiley conjures here, at once surprising and satisfying in the way of all good stories. And the animals, however unique (and frequently comical) their personalities, are exquisitely familiar in the behavior that distinguishes their species, from how a horse gets to her feet or scratches her back to how a dog digs a hole or regards a ball.
This is one of those books that is hard to categorize, though it hardly matters. Written with the simplicity and wonder common to children's literature, "Perestroika in Paris" is smart and interesting enough to engage grown-ups — who might find, in this unlikely alliance of animals, a hint of the comfort of companionship among strangers so sorely lacking in our contentious moment.
Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing in Wisconsin. Find her at ellenakins.com
Perestroika in Paris
By: Jane Smiley.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 265 pages, $26.95.