Review: Water for Elephants

“Why the hell shouldn’t I run away with the circus?” ~ Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
331 pages
Published by Algonquin Books, 2006
Genre: Fiction
Re-readability: I’m glad I read it, but I won’t be revisiting this one.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by Pete
Spoiler-free review

There was a point when I was scouring the shelves of used bookstores for a copy of Water for Elephants. It was a hugely popular book, so surely I could find a cheap paperback somewhere, right? I never found it, but I was later given a copy by a friend. After all of that hunting, I suddenly didn’t feel any desire to read it. So it sat on my shelf for six years before making its way to the “unwanted books box.” Recently, it was chosen as the book of the month for one of our book clubs, and of course, I couldn’t find it anywhere.

Library copy in hand, I finally sat down to read it. This is the story of a Jacob Jankowski, a young Cornell student who leaves college right before completing his final exams after the sudden death of his parents. He flees town and climbs onto a train that happens to belong to the Benzini Brothers, a lesser-known circus that scavenges performers and animals from other circuses as they go out of business. With this background in veterinary studies, he becomes the only vet on the circus.

It doesn’t take long for Jacob to fall in love with Marlena, who performs with the animals and is married to the ringleader, August. He forms a strange friendship with the couple that, as you can imagine, turns sour.

But adding to this complicated situation is both Marlena’s mutual feelings and August’s moments of extreme anger and sometimes abuse, both of Marlena and of the animals.

It’s clear that Gruen did her research, showing the far less glamorous aspects of circuses in the 1930s and the realities of working for one. This is not the cheery, easy-reading book I expected. The writing is simple and vivid, and though the plot isn’t incredibly complicated, Gruen doesn’t spell things out for the reader. The occasional passages of “present-day” Jacob were a little corny, but well done.

Near the end of the book, I was pleasantly surprised by the whole thing, particularly Gruen’s ability to capture the atmosphere of the circus train. However, in the climax of the book, she reveals the prologue to have been the setup for an unforgivable punchline.

Not only was I frustrated to have been sold on her cheap trick, but the “gotcha” rendered one of the main characters almost entirely passive and revealed that I had been analyzing the wrong relationship the whole book. I feel that Gruen sold her characters and plot for a moment of brief shock when you realize things were not as they initially appeared—a move that felt disrespectful to her readers, but most of all to her characters.

I still enjoyed the book over all, but the ending was a slap to the face—like a five-minute setup to a bad pun. It took the book down a notch for me, and will keep me from recommending it to others.

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