Review of House Rules, by Heather Lewis

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In some ways Natalie Scott’s Rules for Riders, Anton Disclafani’s The Yonahloosee Riding Camp for Girls, and this book, Heather Lewis’s House Rules, seem different versions of the same basic story – a young equestrienne’s discovery of the real world. If they were films, Scott’s might be PG13 light romance & Disclafani’s an epic rated R. Lewis’s: Unrated & full-frontal – no certificate, no cuts, & no concessions to the censors. Like Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, House Rules struck me as achieving tragic status, tho’ whether you should read it as a full-scale tragedy depends on how believable you find Lee’s situation @ the end.

My experience with hunters & jumpers is entirely second hand. My world was sailing; but both riding and yachting satisfy some of our highest aspirations, demanding skill, intense competitiveness, dedication, physical endurance, & courage in the face of danger. In both we adapt to the demands of beautiful, unpredictable, & often expensive, @ the top echelon extremely expensive indeed, partners – horses or yachts. Which makes riding and sailing traditional pursuits for the rich. But by no means exclusively. Horses need riders & yachts crew & there are plenty of young people, whose entire net wealth fits into a duffle bag, who would offer their whole lives to riding or to sailing. If that choice of life ever appealed when you were young (I’m gazing wistfully @ my old yellow seabag), you’ll find you share a lot with Lee.

As Aristotle pointed out long ago, we enjoy good representations in fiction of things we would not enjoy at all in real life, whether Oedipus stabbing himself in the eyeballs, or in Lee’s case, what it would feel like to mount a horse after being fisted. I cannot imagine wanting to be a bottom, but can see in being a sexual passive a form of misplaced spirituality, a wrong turn in the path to what Ignatius designated as the third level of humility – perfect identification with Jesus’ suffering. But tho’ some of the blurb descriptions of this book make it sound like a work of Lesbian S/M erotica, I did not find that @ all. The sex scenes seemed more descriptions of extreme unarmed combat or OTT hazing @ a very bad fraternity or military school. The heavy drug use in the novel represents a Dionysiac spirituality, as in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. (I’d known from my hospital experience that Dilaudid was the good stuff, but now I know why & that you can use it to control both horses & riders.) Like some other favorite characters, Lee is both extremely tough and very vulnerable. She doesn’t know how to recognize or repay generosity, yet she has an enormous capacity to endure abuse while retaining her personal dignity & honor.

But tho’ the sex in House Rules is not all that erotic, this book excels other novels about young athletes in the erotics of extreme competition. You can almost feel you’re in the saddle with Lee & smell the horse lather. Amber Dermont hadn’t a clue how to do that with dingy sailing in The Starboard Sea even Yonahloosee Riding Camp – tho’ belonging to a higher level of literature – doesn’t take you over the jumps with Thea Atwell as Heather Lewis lets you ride with Lee. The only thing I’ve read recently that matches this in sheer intensity is the chapter in Dare Me where the Sutton Grove cheer squad elevate Beth Cassidy for what is expected to be the culminating 2-2-1. (Beth, we recall, was also an equestrienne as well as a cheer captain.)

I read House Rules shortly after Pamela Moore’s Chocolates for Breakfast, & of course am haunted by the similarities not only with their main characters, but by the fates of their authors (who join Lucy Grealy & Judee Sill in my pantheon of martyrs to misplaced spirituality.) Artistically, the fate of the author shouldn’t affect our estimate of the meaning & quality of her work, but of course it does. Heather Lewis left behind a couple of more novels about teenaged girls who suffer a lot of abuse. They may be too OTT even for me, but I expect I’ll eventually try one of them, when I’m ready to revisit the wilder shores. For now tho’ it’s back to cozier books featuring mere serial killers & such.

3 thoughts on “Review of House Rules, by Heather Lewis

  1. Thank you for sending this to me. I agree so much with your thoughts on this one. The sex scenes were NOT erotic but the competition passages were done with such immediacy they were immensely sensual. I really felt for Lee, and she is tough. I kept thinking how often I would’ve turned and run, but she held her ground like a real, true cowboy. That was a great nickname for her. Some really excellent scenes. This book turned my stomach again and again; however, I’m so glad that I read it.

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  2. No, YOU would not have turned & run. What makes such a character as Lee so admirable is that she is attractive, skillful & keeps her commitments, even to those who don’t deserve her fidelity. That makes her an obvious target for those who would exploit her. That is also her tragedy.

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