There’s no doubt that people pick up The Art of Racing in the Rain because of the too-close photo of the dog on the front and the fact that it’s written from a dog’s point of view. Enzo the dog makes a tremendous and unique narrator, and that choice for this book is brilliant. But it was not Enzo that kept me reading this book. As cute and philosophical and creative as that point of view is, what kept me glued to page after page until way too late at night was the plot – the fact that event after event piled on top of each other moved the book in such a way that even the dog lazing in the sun couldn’t slow it down.
The book opens on the eve of Enzo’s death, and though the idea is that Enzo is reflecting on his own life with his owner Denny, the truth is that we really are reflecting on the life of Denny. Within the first year of the narrator, which is glossed over in a span of three pages, Denny meets the girl who will become his wife. Under the guise of seeing how Enzo welcomes another person into his home, we really see how Denny falls so hard in love with this woman named Eve, and how, very quickly, the family expands to include a daughter, Zoe. While the story might be tempted to mold the story around Enzo’s rough adjustment to this new larger family and its happy-ever-after, instead, the dog is merely an observer to how this temporarily happy family begins to unravel.
Stein creates a story in which each chapter creates a new problem, a new layer of complications bearing down on Denny. First, we see how Denny’s career as a racecar driver keeps him from being home when his daughter is born, foreshadowing the conflicts he will face later in choosing between his family and his dreams: “But for Mark Fein to say that Denny should put his own needs above the needs of his family because concurrent success in both fields was impossible was simply wrong.”
His being away from home also compounds the problem when Eve begins feeling ill. “’You always go away, and I have to take care of Zoe and Enzo all by myself, and I can’t do it! It’s too much! I can barely take care of myself!’” In order for her to have constant care, her parents have Eve move in with them. This begins a snowball effect of Zoe moving in with the grandparents, loneliness leading to a compromising situation with a teen, Eve’s death, the grandparents’ insistence on getting custody of Zoe, a custody battle that climaxes in the false charges of felony rape, the subsequent bankruptcy of Denny due to escalating lawyer fees and lack of ability to travel for racing and a court case against him. Chapter after chapter, Denny is dealt blows that pull the reader into the story with ferocity. Enzo, though the unique narrator, is merely recording these events as a bystander and comforter.
I don’t want to downplay the importance of Enzo as narrator. The moments of reading where I laughed or cried, it was because of Enzo. My heart broke because his heart broke. My tears came when he became old and frail and unable to stand on his own, because I’ve had dogs and been through those heartbreaking last days.
But I stayed awake, page after turning page, because my attention was invested in Denny and the constant parade of difficulties that came into his life. There was not a page where everything – or even most things – was settled with him. What I learned from The Art of Racing in the Rain is that the art of creating a compelling story is to create plot points that compel a reader to keep reading so that at no chapter do they feel things are well enough to put the book down for a night. Each scene must not just move the story forward but drag the reader further into the mire of the character’s life like a pit of quicksand.
There is often the criticism that literary novels wallow. This book does not wallow; it races. From one blistering complication to the next, it is a perfect example of how a book cannot rest upon a gimmick as cheap as a dog as a narrator; in the end, plot is everything.