There are a lot of reasons for me not to like “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” It’s heavily focused on auto racing, as in NASCAR and Formula 1. Not exactly my thing. And the protagonist is a middle-aged man named Denny with a wife and child — not really someone I can relate to. But Garth Stein chose such a genius method of narration that I picked up the book despite knowing it was about racing, and I never had any regrets.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is told from the point of view of Enzo, Denny’s dog, and it is told in such an endearing, poignant way that no dog lover can possibly resist the charm of this book. And while the plot is seemingly focused on racing — Denny is a professional driver and the title is derived from one of his skills — it soon becomes apparent that racing is only a front for everything else going on in the book.
The plot hinges on the death of Denny’s wife, Eve, from cancer. This in itself would be terrible enough, with Denny taking care of their daughter, Zoe, alone, but Eve’s parents have never been the biggest fans of Denny. As soon as the funeral’s over, they start pulling every single string they can to gain custody of Zoe. Denny, having trouble with his racing career, simply doesn’t have the means to contend with their top-notch legal support, but is determined to keep his daughter.
And all of this, every plot point, is delivered through the all-seeing, philosophical eyes of Enzo the lab/terrier mix. Enzo has spent his days watching documentaries, the Weather Channel and countless old racing videos. Now that he’s older and nearing the end of his days, he’s a wise old soul, piercing in his observations of humanity and certain that he’s going to be reincarnated as a human in his next life.
Having chosen a dog as his narrator, Stein is able to tell the story more simply than if he had chosen a more conventional protagonist. As a dog, Enzo’s thoughts aren’t as confused with emotion; he can remember objectively, and his senses are sharper. Simultaneously, his life is shorter and his observations more precise, focusing the novel in a way just not possible with a human narrator. Aspects that may have been trite and uninteresting coming from a human seem fresh and original when told from the simplified perspective of a dog.
And don’t be fooled — just because Enzo’s dog mind focuses the book’s emotions doesn’t mean it simplifies them. This book is powerful and poignant, possibly more so because of the slightly removed, straightforward portrayal of the situation. What could have been a slightly mushy, overly dramatic novel becomes a philosophical portrait of man and man’s best friend.
Stein’s writing should appeal to any dog- or animal-lover: It truly reads like a book narrated by a dog. But Enzo’s life spent among and watching humans has made him an expert in humanity, lending credence to his insightful observations on everything from life, death, time and love. I’d say pick up this book if you like dogs, but that’s really only the beginning — pick up this book if you like reading beautiful stories about humans.