Water for Elephants

By Sara Gruen

Why I Chose This Book
Real life book club was last night, and this was our selection. I’d voted for Little Bee by Chris Cleave because of it had culture clashes in it, and a beach (I’d just unexpectedly bought cheap tickets to Hawaii and had tunnel vision). And even though The Help (Kathryn Stockett) had been so highly recommended to me by other people, something about the publisher’s book description irritated the crap out of me that day so I made it my third choice. The only thing I had against Elephants going into the book was the glut of fashion magazine covers featuring the leads that I’ve been walking past for months, and I already had a copy in the house. I was happy to read it.

Why I Chose Right Now to Review This Book
Little Filly is on her second day of being sick, and she is just collapsed under a blanket tent on the couch. It’s a good, quiet chunk of time for turning this out. Plus, I enjoyed breakfast so much I was considering second breakfast,* but I’m not actually hungry. Tying myself to the computer for a while is a good distraction. Also I don’t want to forget what few fleeting impressions I have of the book that are more substantive than my emotional response, so I’ll just get this out of the way now and never think about it again.

*Mmmm… second breakfast…

Nutshell Review of the Book
This book was very, very entertaining. I was so excited and invested in pages 1 to 25 that I Twittered or Facebooked about it. Maybe both! See how exciting the first twenty-five pages were? And I thought the excitement held up well for almost everything else. I liked the jumps between Old Jacob and Young Jacob, and thought the transitions between points of view were graceful. There is an extended sequence towards the end that goes on way too long that became quite tedious (the prologue tells you what’s going to happen and at that point you just want to get on with it already), and I didn’t care as much about the relationship at the heart of the plot as I did about the secondary cast of circus folk, but I liked how the story resolved for Young Jacob well enough, and I did find Old Jacob’s conclusion charming and believable, even if it’s completely unbelievable to anyone who knows anything about nursing homes and circuses. It was believable in the book’s world at least.

Detailed Review of the Book

To be honest, I don’t really have a lot to say in detail about the book. It was captivating, and it was what it was. What happened, happened. Despite the fact that there are lots and lots of questions for book clubs provided in the back, we didn’t really talk about it much. We agreed generally that the extended sequence–when you realize that the story is just about at the part where August gets a stake through his head (not a spoiler; it happens on page 3) but starts to give you hour-by-hour and blow-by-blow descriptions of the characters until it happens–is tedious. We had mixed feelings about whether the elephant was sexualized (I think no), and we wondered just how old Marlena was supposed to be (it really, really wasn’t clear). There was some talk about why Big Al tolerated August; I wondered why somebody didn’t just throw the damn elephant hook off the train one night, considering how easy it was to throw everything else off the train at night; we discussed the casting choices for the movie. I like Reese Witherspoon for Marlena just find, have no opinion about Robert Patterson in the role of Jacob, and don’t know who else is in the film. We loved the photographs that were included in the book.

That all the villains were cartoon villains didn’t bother me this time. I mean, it’s a circus. Villains are supposed to be bad through and through and dwarfs are supposed to be crotchety but lovable. (For further reference, see Tyrion Lannister and Gimli, Son of Gloin.) The tragic heroine is fragile yet competent yet ageless. (How old is she anyway? And how long really has she been with the show? And how long did it take her to learn all that? If the book addressed it I missed it.) The narrator is plausibly unreliable and a very good showman, and if details of his story have been changed for personal reasons–consciously or unconsciously–it doesn’t actually matter. It’s the kind of book where you get caught up in the spectacle and don’t notice what’s really missing. Because, well, it’s a circus. But, well, also mostly a romance. I don’t feel like I know much more about circuses or the Depression or animals or the nomadic lifestyle than I did when I started. It’s a perfectly cromulent story that I loved reading, but I don’t really think there’s much to go back to. If I heard it made a better movie than a book, I wouldn’t be surprised. No matter what I bet the film is gorgeous.

Two years ago to the day (June 2, 2009), we read for Book Club Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. I wrote all about it here. It’s another Depressionish-Era circus/carnival book, with the trains and the flashbacks and some other stuff, and I bring it up now not because it’s about a circus but because how Jacob in Water reverts to his youthful self when the circus comes back to town. I could put a little effort into trying to make thematic links between the two books, I suppose, but I don’t really see very many, and the Gruen book doesn’t really seem to be written to evoke the Bradbury, and anyway for Gruen the Circus is a generally positive place that can be corrupted, but that also promises freedom and camaraderie–Ringling being the ultimate expression of that, of course. That so many smaller circuses fuck it up is not really the fault of the True Circus, of course. The worthy will always find their ways there eventually. Our hero Joseph is lucky enough to find himself there twice.

What’s on Deck
The second book in the Game of Thrones series
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Woman on the Edge of Time by (Marge?) Piercy

I let that Nabokov memoir (Speak, Memory) go back to the library. I read the first few chapters and the intro, and I’m sure it’s wonderful, but I don’t automatically love memoirs, and I haven’t read most of his catalog, and I don’t really want insight on his personal life or the process behind writing his books. I dunno. If I’m missing out on a world great, let me know and I’ll check it back out. There’s not a waiting list for it.

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