Malcolm Brooks’ PAINTED HORSES has a beautiful cover. The blurb on the back of my copy of the book reads almost as beautiful. Few readers wouldn’t get hooked by the romanticism and untouched landscape alluded to by talk of the open Montana range in the 1950s. It’s another time and it’s another place, one that is recent but not too recent that we know it too well.
As a woman, I was caught by the idea of a female archaeologist – a childhood dream of mine – working the ancient native lands there.
So to say I entered PAINTED HORSES with high hopes would not be an understatement.
To say I left PAINTED HORSES with a sense of unfinished disappointment would also not be an understatement.
It’s clear that Brooks knows what he’s talking about when it comes to horses, the American West, and World War II. Had the story truly been focused on that, it might have been so much better.
John H accounts for the half the story, and his story is told in snatches of the past using first person, present tense. He’s a man of the horses, I suppose one could say. He knows everything there is to know about them. His story is interesting enough.
It’s clear too that Brooks doesn’t really understand his female lead character. Catherine LeMay is the female archaeologist in a time when women were not in that profession. Half the story is hers, told in third person, past tense – even when the focus goes back to a few years earlier when she worked in London. She spent a lot of time worrying about her sunburn, her jagged nails, and how many sanitary napkins she needed to take on a camping trip when her time of the month came. Sure, she loved archaeology but it was as though Brooks wanted to make sure no one forgot she was a woman. It was a very 1950s-era portrayal of women.
And it irritated me.
The two supporting characters in the book – Catherine’s native guide Miriam and her range guide, and John H’s nemesis, Jack Allen – are the better written characters. I do feel like Miriam was created because Brooks thought Catherine needed a girlfriend, another irritating thing, but she served her purpose well. Jack Allen, the antagonist to everyone in the story, is by far the most interesting. I wanted to read more about him. He kept showing up, making discoveries, and wandering away. It was a letdown.
The worst part of the book is that Brooks tried, emphasis on that word, to write a sex scene from Catherine’s perspective. I don’t think he understands sex from a woman’s perspective. I almost threw the book when Catherine wanted to be “split like an atom” and “have him better explore her canyons.” (Both those phrases being paraphrases, of course.) And I won’t talk about the scene where she’s lonely and pleasures herself for the first time.
The best part of the book, and yet the most disappointing, is its potential to be more than it was. When I used my imagination, it was fantastic. It wasn’t all there. It wasn’t all it could be, but it was an excellent idea for a book. I only wish it had been more.
(I received a copy of PAINTED HORSES as part of the Goodreads First Reads giveaway program. This review is cross-posted between my blog & my Goodreads account.)