Book review

If ever there were a year when we could use some light relief, 2020 is it.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley (“A Thousand Acres”) surely didn’t know what kind of world she’d be sending her new book into — but “Perestroika in Paris” couldn’t have come at a better time. Fanciful, smart and atmospheric, it has just enough thematic weight to make it more than merely silly.

Perestroika, nicknamed “Paras,” is a 3-year-old filly at a track outside Paris who, after winning her latest race, is presented with an unexpected opportunity. Her groom, Rania, needing a bathroom break (why not just go in the stall, Paras wonders), accidentally leaves a gate unlatched. Paras, pressing against it, suddenly finds herself free. Picking up Rania’s purse (Paras knows she has “just won a purse, and so, she thought, this would certainly be it”), she trots off and before long is munching grass on the Place du Trocadéro, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.

There she meets a German shorthaired pointer named Frida who has a much better idea of what to do with the contents of Rania’s purse than Paras does. Frida’s late owner, a homeless busker, used to play for cash, so Frida knows all the things that “money, made of paper, in all shades” can buy.

Within a short time, Paras and Frida encounter an erudite raven, Raoul, who speaks seven languages, including Chinese (“all birds speak Chinese,” he says), and a pair of agitated mallards, Sid and Nancy, who nest on a pond under the Eiffel Tower itself. Between their joint efforts, they keep themselves sufficiently fed, savor their surroundings and even make some friendly human company: a butcher, a baker, a groundskeeper and a vegetable stand owner (Paras needs her apples and carrots).

Most important among their human company is 96-year-old Madame Éveline de Mornay, who cares for her orphaned great-grandson, 8-year-old Étienne, in a house abutting the Champ de Mars. A lovelorn rat, living with his father in Madame de Mornay’s walls, completes the picture.

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“Perestroika in Paris” isn’t being marketed as children’s fiction, but it would be a perfect gift for any horse-crazy, Paris-crazy or, for that matter, rat/dog/bird-crazy 12-year-old reader. That said, Smiley’s wit and her lyrical prose make the book a sparkling screwball-comedy treat for adults as well.

Mysteries present themselves, histories are revealed and adventures ensue. The humans in the tale puzzle over Perestroika’s unaccompanied presence in the heart of Paris, while the animals try to decode baffling human behavior — for instance, when Frida observes joggers on the Champ de Mars.

“Running humans never looked at a thing,” she notices. “Perhaps they could not do two things at once, which was why she had never seen even the fastest ones catch a pigeon.”

Raoul the raven, on the other hand, has comments to make on homo sapiens’ indoor activities.

“In my view,” he declares, “there is nothing quite as amusing as observing humans in their own habitats. They sleep on their backs with their mouths wide open … and there is not much of this walking about that you see out of doors, looking lordly and in charge. It’s all lolling and lazing and stoking themselves with food and drink.”

Smiley is engaging on the everyday challenges facing her animal characters. “Getting up from lying down is a project for any horse,” she informs us, “one that a horse must prepare for mentally. Legs are long, bodies are heavy; balance is attainable, but not without effort.”

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Meanwhile, back in the racetrack world, Perestroika’s owner, trainer and groom are all keeping an eye out for her as winter descends on Paris. Several times they narrowly miss spotting her. Perhaps if they were to question some of the tradespeople near the Champ de Mars, they might get somewhere.

Instead, their best clues to Perestroika’s whereabouts come from an Irish telephone psychic who sees the young filly “walking down the street, looking into shopwindows.” The psychic speaks no French, however, and isn’t familiar with Paris, so she can’t identify where these windows are. Still, she says, Paras seems “healthy and active.”

The novel, as airy as it is, has something thoughtful to say about how blindly we venture out and make our way in the world. Paras occasionally wonders why she slipped away from the racetrack life she so enjoyed. “Curiosity was the only answer,” she decides. “Or,” she admits, “sheer ignorance.”

By story’s end, she’s a wiser horse — no longer a filly but an increasingly philosophical mare who has come to appreciate “the price of freedom” that a carefree runaway’s life exacts.

It’s hard to imagine anyone not enjoying this wistful charmer of a book.

Jane Smiley, Knopf, 265 pp., $26.95

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