September 5, 2011

September 5, 2011

In Our Opinion: Water for Elephants

Friend-of-blog Mel and I have once again agreed on a mutual review. Last time, it was Inception. This time, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. (The book, not the movie. Sorry to all the Robert Pattinson fans; I think he’s also done work in a series about vampires or something.) Her review, which you are welcome to read first, is here.

I.       Setting

Depression era. The glory days of the circus. A time when a plethora of men out-of-work combined with a plethora of families looking for amusement and a modicum of freaks. Let’s face it: throughout history, mankind has been sprinkled with a modicum of physical and mental freaks. Their ability to find job satisfaction fluctuates, but they’re always out there.

(Caveat: As a child in Wisconsin, I certainly attended a circus or two, and dutifully watched the now-defunct Great Circus Parade on TV, but have never visited the Circus World Museum in Baraboo. I am just as much an outsider as the rest of you, unless you are a Flying Wallenda, in which case I am a much bigger outsider.)

The circus of Water for Elephants is the (name of circus), which is certainly a mouthful. To the eyes of this non-Flying Wallenda, it appears to be pretty typical of the time, especially once it gets an elephant. More on that later.

II.    Plot

Just a brief synopsis here, since many of you have likely seen the film, read the book, or are planning to do so. Jacob Jankowski (protagonist), runs away to join the circus after his parents die in a car accident. Perhaps unwisely, he does so just before finishing his veterinary degree. He meets August, the bipolar head trainer. He falls in love with Marlena, August wife. After the circus picks up an elephant named Rosie, Jacob uses his profound understanding of animals (and the Polish language) to bond with her. And with Marlena. Since August is a total jackhole, though, this relationship is doomed.

Luckily for everybody, the circus owner (Big Al) is known for cutting corners, and his spendthrift ways end in total calamity. The animals get loose, August is trampled to death, and Jacob sweeps Marlena off to live happily ever after. They have children, he works for a real circus (Ringling), and end up ditching the nursing home for yet another circus.

III. Characters
I couldn’t help but picture Robert Pattinson in my head as I read this book, and I hated that. Same for Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz. Nothing to be done, but I wish it had been left to my imagination.

Though I found the premise a little unbelievable on the whole (literally running away to join the circus?), I did empathize with Jacob. Preparing for a profession that requires you to stick your hand up a cow’s butt is hard enough. Once your parents are tragically killed? Forget about it.
The Jacob/Marlena/August love triangle didn’t convince me either, but perhaps that was residual cringing from Jacob’s sexual awakening facilitated by the ladies of the cooch tent. I may be years removed from my days at Fundy U, but reading about Adult Activities will never get any easier.

(I should also apologize to the man sitting next to me on the bus that one day. Sir, if you happened to notice that I was reading about a man getting deflowered, I DO APOLOGIZE.)

Honestly, the character I liked best was old Jacob. (No, my favorite was not the elephant. I did not cheer when she killed August, nor at the many times the reader was reminded that ELEPHANTS ARE PEOPLE TOO. Save it for Greenpeace.) Old Jacob, an imperfect narrator, combined the indignities of old age with a fierce desire to keep living. He doesn’t remember how old he is, nor which of his many relatives was supposed to take him to the circus camped next to the nursing home. But he’s feisty enough to scoot himself over when no one else will, and it’s that same sort of self-determination that won us two world wars, dammit!

*wipes tear from eye*

Maybe I’m just nostalgic for the grandpa I never had. It’s like that scene from The Royal Tenebaums, when Royal reads the gravestone of a man who died heroically on a sinking ship. The viewer is led to believe this is a relative of Royal’s. He then says something like, “What a man. I wish I knew him.”

Well, I wish I knew Jacob Jankowsky. After he finished all that silliness with the circus.

IV. Style

Gruen uses a framing device, in which the bulk of the book is recalled through the eyes of the now-aged main character. The parallel? Present-day Jacob is eagerly anticipating a trip to the circus, whereas past-day Jacob worked many years on a circus. I do love the framing device, confusing as it is when you start the book. (More or less than in medias res? Discuss.)

I appreciate a single protagonist/point of view kept constant throughout the book. I would not have liked to read a chapter told by Marlena, or the elephant, or the dwarf. It’s hard enough keeping these people (and animals) straight with just one narrator.

The ending was a little tidy for my taste—I kept expecting Marlena to miscarry or die in childbirth. That their long and productive union disappointed me probably speaks more to my own predilection for dystopian fiction (where EVERYBODY dies) than Gruen’s storytelling abilities.

The pacing was good, and you definitely knew when the book climaxed. I appreciated the real-life archival circus photographs scattered throughout, as well as the small details of circus life: the cookhouse flag, the water buckets, the segregation of performers and labor. Who knew that 50,000 people were paralyzed after drinking Jamaica ginger extract? Not me, even after watching the entire first season of Boardwalk Empire. HBO fail.


Water for Elephants is a “slice of life” novel. In this case, Depression-era circus life. My criticisms aside, it’s a worthy read. While researching this blog entry (ie reading the Wikipedia article), I learned that this novel originated in NaNoWriMo. If given one month to write a book, I would certainly do much, much worse. For those who’ve read the book and seen the movie, how do they compare?

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