I bought a copy of ‘Water For Elephants’ a few years ago after having heard lots of acclaim for it all over the place on its initial release and not really having taken its premise in. The idea of a book combining the circus (I don’t care for clowns) and the Great Depression (which I knew nothing about other than maybe it was… well… depressing) didn’t really seem to be my thing and so sadly it was left languishing on the TBR. So when it was chosen as the next book group choice I was filled with a mixture of ‘oh finally I get to give it a whirl’ and ‘oh dear this probably isn’t going to work for me is it’. Sometimes though great successes come from low expectations…
Sara Gruen can certainly describe something vividly if ‘Water For Elephants’ is anything to go by. I don’t think I have read a book that has captured me quite so much in the world it creates for quite some time. In this case, through the eyes of protagonist and narrator Jacob Jankowski after the death of his parents, loss of his inheritance due to the financial climate and with nowhere else to turn, we are thrown into the world of the 1930’s circus and ‘Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth’. Here he joins a world of underdogs, freaks, misfits and the beautiful ‘star of the show’ Marlena who is married to the tyrannical and rather unhinged animal trainer August. Gruen slowly sets up a love triangle which you have an inkling from the prologue could end in disaster.
It might sound rather like a typical love story and indeed could be if it weren’t for the setting, animals and most effective interspersed chapters where we find Jacob narrating from an old people’s home in his nineties. This added a certain something to the novel as we see how a man who lived a rather adventurous life, as we come to learn through his memories of the circus, and yet has now been pretty much dumped in a home where no one knows his past and no one really cares, with the exception of a rather delightful nurse called Rosemary. This to me actually made the whole novel all the better, and could have been a novel in of its own in many ways, as it added a rather bittersweet note to the book and gave you pause between the thrills and spills of his life in the 1930s.
Clearly Gruen had done a huge amount of research for this book, as explained by the authors note at the end, and the circus itself was incredibly vivid both in its glamorous ‘working’ glory and the rather dark and horrendous ‘behind the scenes’ aspects. Yet in some ways this occasionally was at the expense of some of the characters and some of the story. The plot is incredibly tight and keeps you turning the pages but then some strands suddenly end, or characters suddenly vanish with no real explanation and it slightly broke the spell Gruen so wonderfully weaved because I found myself thinking ‘oh so so-and-so has gone, maybe Gruen didn’t need them anymore’. Also despite Jacob being so wonderfully written characters like Marlena, August and Walter the Clown seemed more two dimensional. I came away having being thoroughly entertained but also left wanting to know why August was such a psychopath, why Marlena allowed herself to be in the position she was and how Walter ended up this bitter dwarf who then played clown. But then really I think the circus and Rosie the Elephant, who I loved, were maybe meant to be the secret stars of this book.
That said ‘Water For Elephants’ is a truly cracking read. I was occasionally frustrated I couldn’t simply sit and read it all in one go because the world Gruen created I really wanted to be a part of and stay in. It was a book I would simply take to read a few paragraphs of whilst boiling the kettle or walking down the stairs (dangerous) and was constantly in my hands whenever I had the chance.
Pages were quickly turned, I was often shocked at the way the people and animals were treated, two themes which Gruen explores, and I liked the fact that though the Great Depression was there in the pages it loomed darkly in the background not taking over the whole book yet letting its presence be very much known. Again this isn’t the most perfect book I have come across but its one I thoroughly enjoyed and one that I think will stick with me for the atmosphere Gruen created and the sense of having actually been right there with her characters and almost lived it all myself. 8.5/10
I bought this novel from a chairty shop a couple of years ago, it was originally bought in ‘Manali Bookshop, Anjuna, Goa’ apparently according to the sticker on the back, isn’t it lovely its travelled like that?
I had thought I might try and do something a tiny bit different with my thoughts on ‘Water For Elephants’, I was going to do a fair whack about what I thought and then I would do a smaller portion about at the group thought, however it seemed that my thoughts (as I wrote the actual main part of the post before I went) were pretty much along the same lines as everyone else’s both in the pro’s and con’s camp. We did all agree that we much preferred the old ‘unisex’ cover to the rather more ‘chick lit’ cover, these are important things after all.
I am finding it really interesting that so far in 2011 with this and with ‘Brighton Rock’ it’s the books that are making me think about reading and writing that seem to be sticking with me the most so far over the ones I out and out love. I wonder if this is a trend that will continue.