Friday, October 7, 2011

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for ElephantsThough he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell and in the end it was a life he never expected.

I looked forward to reading this book ever since the movie based on it was announced but by the time I finally got my hands on the paperback the much-anticipated film was so close to release that I decided to wait to read the book until after the movie has faded from my memory. And so it is only now that I've read it, staying up late to enjoy Sara Gruen's beautiful prose and to be impressed by the diverse cast of the book's characters. Getting to know Jacob, Marlena, Rosemary, Walter, Camel and even August and Uncle Al was an absolute delight, especially since they continued developing until the very end, revealing new facets of their personalities and details about their past that made them who they are.
The narrative alternates between the past, set in 1930s, and the present, which could really be now or 10 years ago, we don't get much information as to what decade it is. In the present the 90, or 93-year-old Jacob is at a nursing home, struggling with his age and helplessness and remembering the beginning of his life at the circus and the beginning of his love affair with Marlena, the beautiful and talented performer in the liberty horse act. In the past he is 23, living the most exciting and the most perilous months of his life. Sometimes the back and forth such as this can be confusing, detracting from the experience, but in this particular case it was executed so well that seeing the past and the present helped create a fuller picture. It's so much easier to understand old Jacob and his frustrations when you know what he's lived through, and watching the events of the early 1930s unfold you always have a sense that it's not just a story, it's the turning point in a life, several lives in fact.
Although Jacob's relationship with Marlena is central to the story and is a catalyst for pretty much everything that happens my favorite relationships are the ones he has with Rosemary and Walter. They may not be as emotionally charged, but there is a depth and a poignancy to them that I didn't see in his relationship with Marlena. Similarly, I was a bit surprised when he talked about being almost in love with the elephant, feeling protective of her and not being able to let her go when the time came. Throughout the book I didn't see much distinction in his connection with Rosie and the rest of the animals in the menagerie apart from the fact that she was the newest and most expensive member of the team and a lot of attention was paid to her. If I had to choose one animal with whom I could see he had a bond it would be Bobo the ape. There was the tenderness and the affection that wasn't present in the scenes with Rosie, that's where I could see a friendship being born. With the two main relationships feeling under-developed I couldn't help but think that Ms. Gruen did a wonderful job with the secondary cast but could've devoted more attention to the main players.
As much as I enjoyed the novel the very end of it seemed like a bit of a stretch to me. Up until then I believed everything that happened. It seemed logical and completely plausible with even the most outrageous turns of events seeming unexpected and amazing at the most. This is circus after all, anything can happen there. But when it came to the final chapters I just couldn't shake the feeling that I didn't believe it, it was just too good to be true. I can't tell you more but once you read the book, or if you've already read it, I'd love to hear what you thought.
This really is a very good novel and I'll wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone. After all, may be I'm just becoming picky :)


  1. Staying up late to read a book is always a good sign! I haven't read this one, but it is on my TBR list and I do own it, so I hope to get to it soon. Your review hasn't put me off!

  2. It's such a relief to hear you say that! I was kind of worried that some readers might be put off but decided to leave the review as is because changing it wouldn't be saying what I wanted to say. Guess all I can do is hope that the readers will give it a chance because it is such a good book!

  3. I like the setting and am going to put this book on my to-read list rightaway! Thanks for this review, Olga. I usually don't go for novels made into movies, but I guess I have to give this a try!


  4. Claudine,
    This is a very enjoyable book, I think you won't regret reading it.

  5. The circus atmosphere symbolizes the social stratification of the Great Depression era. Necessities of those at the top of the circus hierarchy, such as the performers, were far more important than those of the grounds crew. Payments to the performers were at the expense of the workers, and animals were worth more than a man's labor. Hardships of the depression time period are expressed throughout the novel. The time Jacob spent in the circus represents his search for his own identity.