When I was about twelve, I wanted a horse. Don’t ask me why; I certainly couldn’t tell you now. I’ve had three horseback riding experiences in my life – none of them involved me racing along a forest path or a stretch of beach, one with the horse. The one common theme of those riding experiences is me being terrified. In two instances, the horse decided to run (trot? gallop?) and I was unable to stop the bloody beast. In my 40s, while working for The Canadian Antiques Roadshow, I spent a freezing May afternoon with some of my colleagues at a ranch outside of Lethbridge. A two-hour trail ride left me with bruises on the inside of my legs. I couldn’t sit comfortably for a week. So horses, after all, not my thing.
I tell you these stories so you’ll understand why I didn’t relate at all to Viv, one of the two narrators in Margot Livesey’s novel Mercury. Viv and her husband, Donald (the second, and predominate, narrator) live in a rural community outside Boston. Don is an optometrist; Viv runs a stable with her best friend, Claudia. They have two children.
The first section of the novel is narrated by Don, a somewhat stoic Scotsman, who is still grieving over the loss of his father whom he admits he missed “in every way imaginable.” Perhaps this is meant to explain how things at home start to shift without him noticing: finances, his son’s trouble at school, his wife’s growing obsession with Mercury, a new horse being boarded at the stable.
Mercury, true to his name, was unmistakably hot-blooded. The lines of his body, the arch of his neck, the rise and fall of his stride, were, I agreed with Viv reluctantly, beautiful.
And obsession just about sums it up, too, as Viv tries to jumpstart her dream of competing with Mercury. Even though the horse doesn’t belong to her, Viv feels a kinship with him.
At the gate Mercury fixed his large dark eyes on me a nickered softly. Then he scraped the ground, twice, with his right front hoof, choosing me.
Sadly, for me, I didn’t feel this kinship. Mercury is a novel with a billion things going on and a cast that, even though I read the book over the course of a handful of days, had me flipping back to figure out who they were. And all these characters have stories, too. There’s Don’s mom, feisty widow ready to love again; Jack, a blind (literally) professor who takes up with Hilary, owner of Mercury; there’s Charlie, stable-girl who also covets the horse; Bonnie, a blip on Don’s devoted husband radar. The only thing keeping all these threads pulled together is Livesey’s prose. I’ve been a fan since Eva Moves the Furniture.
And, yeah, I get the whole Don’s an optometrist (irony!) but doesn’t actually see his wife. And I get that Viv’s devotion to Mercury blinkers her to everything else. And I also understand that Viv feels that Don’s grief over his father is isolating. But for me, there wasn’t any emotional center in Mercury. I just didn’t buy that a horse could cause such a fuss.