Title: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
No. of Pages: 350
First Released: 2006
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her.”
Comments and Critique: I am not a fan of circuses. The clowns creep me out. It is dirty, and I cannot stand to see animals made to perform tricks like they do. There is something so inhumane about the whole circus act that really bothers me, so I just avoid them as much as possible.
Because of this dislike, I opened Water for Elephants with doubts. Others have raved about it, but the book is about circuses. I was afraid that it would confirm every horrible thought I have ever had about circuses. I put my faith in my fellow book lovers and proceeded to read. I am very glad I did not discount the book based solely on the main setting. Water for Elephants did not just meet my expectations, it so far exceeded them that I was both amazed and astonished. For a book that does confirm the horrible thoughts about circuses, I found myself drawn into the dark and depressing portrayal of life on a circus train to the point where each character, animal or human, came alive. It was a reaction that I never expected.
The funny thing about Water for Elephants is how much it sneaks up on you. It was not until I was halfway through the book where I finally consciously realized how much I was enjoying the novel. Ms. Gruen does an amazing job of humanizing the animals and animalizing the humans, that readers are left a bit confused about their allegiences and reactions to both. This only adds to the appeal. I would bet that most people found Rosie’s antics and sufferings some of the funniest, saddest and enjoyable portions of the novel. The animals each became characters in their own right, able to carry the scene completely just by a wave of a trunk or a yawn.
At the same time, the humans (or most of them) were portrayed as the most brutish of animals – capable of sacrificing each other in the name of the all-mighty dollar. Life on Depression-era circus trains were not easy, and Ms. Gruen capably shows the hardships all participants faced. It is a dichotomy that blends together so well that a reader is forced to keep reading because he or she now has an emotional stake in the outcome of the novel.
Added to that, the juxtaposition of Jacob’s life at the nursing home and on the circus train is fascinating. The similarities are too large to ignore with Jacob’s lack of control over his own life in each location. It is only when Jacob takes chances where he discovers happiness. Watching Jacob’s burgeoning confidence and indepence is a true joy to experience and definitely one of the highlights of the book.
There has been much made about certain intimate scenes in this book. I have to say that I do not see the big deal. They are not explicit, drawn out, or in any way horribly kinky or depraved. Rather, they are presented matter-of-factly and are oh-so-brief in the details. I tend to be very open-minded about this particular topic, so I can only say that I was not offended by any of the scenes. I felt them to be rather appropriate for the scene at the time and written in such a way to be considered merely a part of being human. Actually, I do not get the big deal, but that is just me.
I just found out that Hollywood is making Water for Elephants into a movie. While I loved the book, I am still in doubt as to how well it will translate to the big screen. Much of the growth and development that occurs throughout the novel is subtle and relatively internal. The movie could very easily turn into an anti-circus, anti-nursing home film, even though that is not the point of the book. I will remain reserved about the future movie until I have heard more about filming.
In all, I found Water for Elephants to be an amazing study of life – at the beginning of adulthood and the end of it. The similarities were striking for all the talk about becoming wiser as a person ages. Taking chances becomes important at any age because one can never reach true happiness until one does just that. The title fits the book perfectly, highlighting the mirage of glamour and contentment both a circus and a nursing home are supposed to portray. I cannot say enough about Water for Elephants. It involves topics I just do not like, yet the fact that I enjoyed the novel so much is a testament to Ms. Gruen’s ability to move beyond the horrors of both locations and get to the core of what it means to be human.
This book counts for the What’s In a Name Challenge for the Body of Water category as well as the Buy One, Read One Book Challenge. As implied by the name, I did purchase this book with my own money.