Jun 13, 2008

Water for Elephants

by Sara Gruen

I've spent most of today trying to think of what to say about this book that hasn't already been said on blogs (Maw Books' database lists thirty reviews of this one!) So many people loved it, I suppose I ought to just explain why I didn't. Brief summary: Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob, an old man in nursing home reminiscing of the time when as young man he ran away and jumped onto a traveling circus train. Having almost finished veterinary school, his skills are needed so he's taken on. This in the Great Depression, when the circus is hard-hit and work not easy to come by. Based on lots of research, the book abounds with details: the circus organization and lingo, the flashy glitter and display that awes the crowd and hides darker truths- squalid conditions, men and animals alike often going hungry, bosses who abuse their workers, trainers who mistreat the animals... In the middle of it all is an unfolding story of love and violence: Jacob is enamored with a performer who's married to schizophrenic man prone to violent fits. He's also the animal trainer, so Jacob ends up working in close proximity with him. Then there's the elephant, brought into the circus to enhance its status, but no one knows how to work with her. Jacob is desperate to save both the woman he loves and the elephant from the hands of brutal men.

I enjoyed reading Water for Elephants. I had a hard time putting it down, and finished it in a day or two. The inclusion of many bizarre events based on true incidents was a great touch. But I wish the story had included more details about Jacob's work as an untried vet with exotic animals- he's given high status as "the circus vet" yet there are only a few cases mentioned (very briefly) and he seems to spend most of his time mucking out stalls and feeding the big cats. And I wanted to know more about the elephant! I was also disappointed that the closing scene was told in the beginning of the book. What I really loved was all the circus lore. It was the perfect compliment to books like Here Keller, Train This! and Zamba, which do tell more about the animals and less about the life of performers. It also reminded me a lot of Geek Love- that behind-the-scenes story of the freaks on display.

Rating: 3/5                350 pages, 2006

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  1. Oh, I'm glad I'm not the only one who didn't love this book. I think perhaps my expectations were higher given the fact that so many people raved about it; the same thing happened with Secret Life of Bees. I got through and thought--what is the big deal?

    I loved reading about the circus life--especially in the time period. But like you said, it wasn't enough--where was all of the detail? And boo for first chapter spoilers! :)

  2. Glad to know someone's in agreement with me! I didn't like Secret Life of Bees, either. And my mother recommended that one to me!

  3. Anonymous6/14/2008

    Well you and Trish aren't the only ones. I liked it but have a hard time recommending it to people.

    I think Jacob was given such a high status as vet simply because out of everybody he did have the most training, which is sad and shows the cruelty and neglect that many of the animals went through during the circus life at this time.


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