Book Review: Fortune’s Fool
Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this eBook to read and review. All thoughts are 100% my own are give without restraint.
Fortune’s Fool by Mary Pagones
“‘Ma, I just kind of accidentally bought a horse so I’ll need the trailer.’
No one wanted the rejected gelding. Even Simon’s mother told her son he was crazy to buy the horse. But Simon never listened to other people, otherwise he wouldn’t have decided to forgo going to college to become a working student at an eventing barn in the first place.
Simon has always struggled–with fitting in, with being a poor boy in a rich man’s sport, and also with being a gay man. To be a rider, after all, is to be…Fortune’s Fool.”
I have another book review for you all and this time it’s centered around my favorite equestrian discipline: eventing! You cannot believe how excited I was to get the request to read and review this book from the author, Mary Pagones. There aren’t enough eventing focused horse books and, while I love reading about dressage and the jumpers, I was happy to get back to my roots.
Fortune’s Fool is the story of Simon O’Shaughnessy’s year as a working student for Daniel McAllister, a well-respected and ex-big name rider who now teaches, breeds, and trains out of his barn in Vermont. There he meets his fellow working students, Megan and Cynthia, and romantic interest, Dr. Max.
Let’s start with what’s unusual about this book (and what makes it kind of fun). The main character and narrator is a boy! How cool is that? I don’t think I’ve ever read a horse book where the main character is male (not counting the stupid Parker centered Thoroughbred book). I thought it was really cool to experience the horse world like a guy would. Since I’m not male myself I won’t comment on how accurate Pagones is with the male psyche but I didn’t get any overly feminine vibes from him. In some ways, Simon really reminded me how my fiancé views the eventing world: no fear, you get over the jumps or you go home, no use worrying about them.
One aspect of the book that I didn’t think I was going to like but ended up really loving was the romance between Simon and Dr. Max. At first the age difference kind of triggered my creep factor and I wasn’t sure how it was going to be handled. But Pagone handled it perfectly. She was very aware of both the age and the experience difference and didn’t just gloss over it. The relationship felt real and Max was a fully realized character, not just someone to prop up Simon. I did feel at times that this romance became more important than the horse story but, since I enjoyed it, I didn’t mine so much. The ending of the book wraps up their relationship in a way that felt natural but still full of hope. I always hate a sad ending for a couple I really enjoy so I was glad not to have one here!
I do feel like this book could have benefited by being edited by someone who is really immersed in the eventing world and either riding at a high level of the sport, or at least working with a BNT/BNR who is actively riding and teaching at those higher levels. Occasionally facts were wrong (both horse and rider need 4 NQRs to advance to Intermediate, not just the rider) and often at eventing competitions Simon’s thoughts didn’t feel like they were coming from someone who really was eventing at Prelim/Intermediate or working for a BNT in the sport. For example, one line that really killed me was “Fortune and I get first in cross-country and second in show jumping” (Chapter 18, ‘Perfect She’s Not’). There are no placings for the individual portions of eventing and once you get your dressage score, you can only keep yourself from getting more points in XC and stadium. Any eventer I have ever known would have phrased that as “We went double clear over XC and moved in to first place after the pair in front of us had some difficulty at the coffin.” (Substitute whatever tragedy you’d like for the difficulty.)
The continuity mistakes also brought me out of the book several times. In Chapter 18, ‘Perfect She’s Not,’ Simon is riding both his own horse, Fortune, and a sales horse Perfect She’s Not. I read the show scenes several times just to make sure I wasn’t missing something but somehow both horses jump over the same difficult XC fence even though Fortune is being run at Prelim and Perfect at Novice. There is just no way. They may utilize the same water complex but that’s about it. There’s also an instance where Daniel buys a horse at auction but a few pages later has the horse on trial. I’ve never heard of an auction allowing you to take a horse out on trial.
But the hardest thing for me to deal with as I got further into the story was just how perfect Simon is. He can’t seem to do anything wrong. At the beginning of the novel Simon gets flack from his chemistry teacher to apply for top schools because of how smart he is. We get this hounded to us again and again when Simon beats Max at chess and later wins $10,000 counting cards at the casino. Even in riding things come up roses at every turn. Somehow Simon is getting paid the big bucks to be a working student with Daniel when his co-workers are either paying to be there or only getting a stipend and he manages to get top finishes in every single show he enters (including winning a big money jumper class). The only thing Simon is not good at, apparently, is dressage but even that seems like lip service considering that Simon constantly manages to place in the top five after dressage going prelim. I don’t know many bad-at-dressage-and-on-a-horse-that-is-stiff-and-hates-dressage-as-well riders who are going to be third going into the jumping portions at that level. Pagones tries to give him character flaws and has him get in a few fights towards the last third of the novel but we don’t see any sign of a short temper until that happens so it feels forced.
I held this book to a very high standard which is probably why this review is coming off sounding a little bit harsh but I want to be clear that I did enjoy it. For one thing, it’s long and I am always a sucker for long books (assuming it’s readable). Second, I love diamond in the rough stories and how Simon buys Fortune for a pittance and turns him into an upper level horse when no one else believes in him, is exactly the kind of dream every pony clubber harbors at some point in their life. And there’s nothing wrong with reading a little wish-fulfillment. In fact, that’s exactly the kind of ending that Pagones gives Simon and while it may seem a bit cheesy, it works and should make you smile.