Monday, February 7, 2011

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Reviewed by Connie

Published: 2007

It's about: The best way I can describe Water for Elephants is by calling it the "Moulin Rouge" of the traveling circus. Our protagonist, Jacob, is sitting his last set of final exams at Cornell before becoming a full-fledged veterinarian in his dad's practice when he receives some terrible, life-altering news. Suddenly, exams seem of no importance, going home seems impossible, and as he wanders around  outside, wondering where life will take him, he happens to see a passing train and makes an impulsive decision -- he leaps aboard. Little did he know that this particular train, passing this particular night, is the train of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth and that its unique world would suck him in and change his life in ways he never could imagine.

Taken on to be the vet of the circus's menagerie, Jacob quickly becomes immersed in the politics, the booze, the sexuality, the cruelty, and the glamor of the traveling circus. And when he falls instantly in love with the show's star performer, Marlena, the wife of his boss no less, their forbidden love is a wedge that threatens to tear the circus apart.

The story alternates between the perspective of Jacob as an old man in a retiring home (is he 91 or 93? Dang it, he can't remember), waiting for his family to pick him up and take him to the circus that just came into town and Jacob as a young runaway, falling for Marlena and the Benzini Brothers show for the first time.

I thought: I liked -- didn't love -- this book. The young characters for me are a bit predictable and flat -- Marlena, the glamorous show girl who cries a lot because she loves animals; Jacob, who falls for her at first sight and fights for their love; August, her controlling and abusive husband; Uncle Al, the cut-throat businessman who runs the show; Walter, the dwarf with a hard shell but a soft, gooey center. You get the idea. The characters, the relationships.... not mind-blowingly original here. Even the love story is pretty generic.

For me, this book was less about profound characters and their journeys and primarily a story about the traveling train circus from its hey-day to its demise. In the afterword, it talks about how Sara Gruen studied the histories of the various traveling circuses in order to really capture the spirit of them, and her research pays off, as the circus itself is the most well-rounded, interesting, profound character in the book. At the end of each chapter, she even throws in a photograph taken from various circus archives. In fact, many of the amusing anecdotes that happen in the book, such as an elephant pulling its stake out of the ground, drinking all the circus's lemonade, then going back and putting its stake back in the ground so the stage hands are blamed for stealing it, come from events that supposedly did happen at one circus or another, according to their stories and records.

Interestingly, I found the chapters told from the perspective of old Jacob to be the most insightful, moving, and real passages in the book. Even though young Jacob is 2-D, older Jacob is surprisingly deep -- they almost seem like entirely different characters. And the ending of the book (it ends with older Jacob) is so sweet and adorable and wonderful and charming, it's worth reading the book just to get to the ending.

Verdict: Ehh... it wasn't my FAVORITE, but I'd still stick it on the shelf

Reading Recommendations: If you read books primarily for depth of characters, don't bother. If you simply want to immerse yourself in a traveling circus, go right on ahead with this one.

Warnings: Occasional, brief, graphic sexuality, some strong language, and a really pissed off dwarf

Interesting Info: A movie adaptation starring Robert Pattinson as Jacob (yes, I said Jacob, no, I didn't miss the irony) and Reese Witherspoon as Marlena is set to come out in April of this year. I'll be interested to see it just to see the various circus acts, especially with the menagerie animals.

Favorite excerpts:
"Age is a terrible thief. Just when you're getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse."

"I hang there, stunned, so tired that it crosses my mind how much easier it would be to simply let go. It's how drowning people must feel in the last few seconds, when they finally stop fighting and sink into the water's embrace. Only what's waiting for me is not a watery embrace. It's a violent dismemberment."

What I'm reading next: The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch (though I'm not convinced I'm going to finish it....)