The plot of The Art of Racing in the Rain is not necessarily original. Nor are the issues of grief, weighing career versus family, or child custody issues… All have been fodder for numerous novels over the years. Where Stein excels is not in the story he tells, but in how he tells the story or perhaps more appropriately WHO is telling the story.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is told from the perspective of Enzo, a mutt that is at least part Labrador Retriever although the rest of his genetic make-up is never really firmly defined. At one point it’s hinted that he’s got a German Shepherd/Poodle mix, although Enzo firmly believes his father was an Airedale Terrier.
While the story is largely about Enzo and his relationship with his owner, Denny, Enzo provides much more of an observational role for Denny, a Nick Carraway to Denny’s Jay Gatsby if you will.
Denny is an aspiring race car driver, trying to make his big break into the world of professional race car driving. Stein does an excellent job creating a sense of empathy and understanding for Enzo, Denny, Denny’s wife Eve, and his daughter Zoë.
Stein’s telling of Denny’s story through Enzo’s eyes also allows him some semblance of detachment and some of Enzo’s observations are scent based and not visual. This gives Enzo a decidedly different perspective on the events that surround him and while not omniscient Enzo does come across as “more knowing” than Denny or his family. He senses the positive and negative intentions of many of the minor characters before Denny does, and gives the book at times a sense of foreshadowing, and at other times it can be somewhat foreboding (in particular the chapter in which Enzo describes the true nature of crows).
There’s also a sense of longing and frustration throughout the book that stems from Enzo’s desire to be human or at least be able to communicate with Denny, Eve, and Zoë better than he does. And at his core, Enzo is more human than canine, a human soul trapped in a dog’s body.
From start to finish The Art of Racing in the Rain is both a compelling, original, and enjoyable read. It feels like a solid 4 out of 5 stars. It falls short of that fifth star largely because the ending feels slightly rushed but more because at times Enzo’s innate “human-ness” really challenges the reader’s suspension of disbelief. If Stein had just slightly toned down Enzo’s “human-ness” and made him a bit more canine he would have been a bit more believable. These are minor quibbles though and should not be reasons to avoid reading this original and otherwise excellent novel.