by Sara Gruen
An atmospheric, gritty, and compelling novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932 illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. Winner of the 2007 BookBrowse Award for Most Popular Book.
An atmospheric, gritty, and compelling novel of star-crossed lovers, set in the circus world circa 1932, by the bestselling author of Riding Lessons.
When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, drifters, 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.
Beautifully written, Water for Elephants is illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. It tells a story of a love between two people that overcomes incredible odds in a world in which even love is a luxury that few can afford.
Some of you may be asking after the post from earlier this week, “why did she include circus stories on her ‘creepy Halloween’ TBR?” Well, let me explain. First, I am absolutely terrified of clowns. I am not going to go into the details of why, just know that I did not see the reincarnation of IT just as I couldn’t force myself (at 18 years old) to make it through the original IT without crying in fear. Second, after finally attending a Ringling Bros circus performance in my early 20s, I was hooked. There is something magical and wondrous about the world of the circus and each October I find myself returning to this bright, mysterious culture. So, expect a couple circus stories this month, and the first is Water for Elephants.
I initially heard about Water for Elephants when the movie came out in 2011. I was intrigued with the story because circus, but almost immediately decided not to read the book. Guys, I will openly admit that I can be a bit of a book snob, and if ‘everyone’ just LOVES a book…..it probably won’t live up to the hype. (Please don’t tell me how stupid this is. I KNOW IT IS! I just can’t help my snobby reaction.) So, instead I spent my time reading stuff like The Night Circus and Girl on a Wire. But this year, I couldn’t stop wondering about the story, and decided to finally pick up Water for Elephants on a couple of trusted friends’ recommendation.
Guys, I loved it! (I know..I know) The book was fantastic! I am not going to add a summary of the story because this post will be long enough as is, but I will say that my favorite aspect of Water for Elephants is how it jumps between Jacob’s current stay in the nursing home and his memories of the circus. Jacob’s modern experience was heart wrenching and yet still humorous. His self awareness was brutally refreshing and eye-opening for someone who hasn’t been forced to experience such a regulated reality. Even now, tears come to my eyes when I remember certain revelations shared by 90, or 93, year old Jacob. I would recommend Water for Elephants just because of that starkly honest storyline.
But, I didn’t initially pick up this book for the modern half, and thankfully Jacob’s memories of the circus seamlessly melded with his current reality. Gruen had me hooked with her gorgeous and unapologetically gritty descriptions of life during the great depression. From Jacob’s loss of security, to the brutal form of animal training, and the fear of a lost job and starvation, I felt like I was there desperately hoping for life. This was a world where people were not free to follow their dreams, but were forced to focus on mere survival. And yet amidst this life of necessity, there is this magical world of the circus. A world of bright lights and mystery that arrives and disappears in one day. A world that promises excitement as big cats prowl, elephants march, and horses prance under the big top. And a disgruntled clown, sordid peepshow, and extensive amount of shoveled animal waste only enhanced the atmosphere. Every character was realistically flawed, and I felt the sadist August was the perfect villain. And I am shocked to still find myself thinking about Walter, the Shakespeare loving clown. So despite the extensive animal and human abuse, I found myself immersed in the culture. Gruen provides a story that feels historically accurate, including the good and bad aspects of people/life in the 1930s.
My only negative point for the book was the development of Marlena. I didn’t feel she was fully hashed out as a character. Yes, we see both her good qualities and her flaws, but I just felt like something was missing. That we were still viewing her through some type of rose colored glasses. And I realized, while writing this review, that even though the circus storyline is presented as the main story, it is still a visualization of Jacob’s memories. And one truth about life is that love is blind. And Jacob loves Marlena. So, I really can not call this a negative aspect of the story because this is how Jacob would remember her.
Now as for the movie….sigh. I didn’t think it was bad; I just think it could have been better. I watched the movie the same day I finished the book, and I was happy with how August and Uncle Al were combined into one character. Same with Greg and Camel. And Robert Pattinson was absolutely perfect as Jacob. I just felt the pacing did not do justice to the story. How can the movie be both slow and very jumpy? Characters were not explored; the culture was not explained. I knew the nuances of these people and their world because I had just stepped out of their story. But I wouldn’t have felt compelled to read the book if I had watched the movie first. Especially with the ending lacking the immense joy of the book’s. The book was just better.
Read Water for Elephants. It is a wonderful story and has taught me to ignore my book snob tendencies. Which circus books are your favorite?