I love to read but haven’t really had that much time lately. I do like to write the occasional book review though so you’ll see these once in a while. Sara Gruen’s 2006 bestselling novel Water for Elephants is a gripping romance novel set in a depression era circus. This book has been on my reading list for quite some time now, so I’m happy I finally got around to reading it.
Gruen’s novel opens with a cliffhanger: we learn straight away that one of the characters is dead, murdered by another character and we also meet our main character.
The story alternates between young Jacob’s story, who works as a vet on a second-rate depression era circus, and old 90-something Jacob who lives in a nursing home. Old Jacob is bitter, alone and generally negative. When the circus comes to old Jacob’s town, many old memories resurface. He starts reminiscing about his life as a veterinarian on a traveling circus.
After the sudden death of his parents, Jacob cannot afford to pay for his Ivy League tuition anymore, even though he is only missing his final exams in order to be a fully qualified vet. He also cannot deal with the aftermath of this sudden grief, so he runs away and joins the Benzini Brothers’ traveling circus. They hire him as a vet and don’t seem to mind that he hasn’t completed his final exams.
Jacob enters a strange world. A world where the glitz and glamour disguise a dark side. The performers and bosses are treated relatively well, but the same cannot be said for the working men and the animals. Men who are no longer needed are actually “redlighted”, which in the book means thrown from the moving train during the night.
Jacob meets Marlena, an equestrian performer, whom he almost instantly falls in love with. Unfortunately, Marlena is married to the apparently charming August, the animal trainer who is twelve years her elder. As Jacob soon finds out, August is not nearly as charming as he seems; he can go from charming to incredibly angry and violent in the space of minutes. This happens with his workers, with his animals and also with Marlena.
While they are traveling they pick up an elephant, Rosie, who appears to be very stupid. August feel frustrated because of this and turns his anger towards Rosie, abusing her; these scenes are particularly hard to read and forced me to look up the bullhorn, an inhumane tool used to train elephants. We then learn that August is actually a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, which explains his behaviour and mood swings. We also learn that Rosie is nowhere near as stupid as she seems.
Sara Gruen does a great job of portraying the dark nasty side of the pretty circus which the audience sees. Her research is accurate and the final twist is definitely surprising. However, some of the characters are dull and uninteresting. Marlena, in particular, is really boring and uninteresting, and I don’t really understand why Jacob falls for her. There’s no chemistry there and, aside from her talents with horses and animals in general, Marlena really doesn’t seem to have anything special going on. I can see why this would be appealing for a vet…but she just doesn’t feel like a real person to me.
The same goes for Uncle Al, the owner of the circus. He was so bland that I often got him and August mixed up! In fact, they decided to cut his character from the movie entirely. I totally agree with this choice.
There was one character in particular who I really liked and felt was really well developed. This is Walter Kinko, the dwarf performer who initially antagonises Jacob but then becomes a close friend. I was really really annoyed with his storyline though.
How unfair was Kinko’s redlighting and subsequent death? Over a trestle?? Really?? And most survived, why did he and Camel have to die?
It’s also quite difficult to believe is that the whole story takes place over 3.5 months! That’s just not enough time for all the drama which unfolds in the story in my opinion.
Should I read it?
Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is an entertaining and well-researched read. It’s well-written, easy to read and I definitely didn’t foresee the very final (unlikely) twist at all! It’s not one of my favourite books but I certainly recommend it.