Water for Elephants — Review by Chris

When Tower Records (and books!) was closing and the books were selling for next to nothing, I took the opportunity to purchase a couple of books that had sounded intriguing. Water for Elephants was one of them. I put it on my nightstand with every intention of reading it soon. Well, 16 months later, I decided it was about time.

All I can ask myself is, Why did I wait that long?

It was a fabulous, compelling book I am glad to recommend.

The novel starts out with a scene that grabbed me from the first. A personal disaster is swept aside in a second due to a bigger and badder disaster. One would think threat to life and limb would trump pretty much anything. Well, read the Prologue to find out just how little personal disaster matters in the face of true terror.

And it goes on from there.

Water for Elephants is a rich, haunting story that pulls no punches. Author Sara Gruen deftly weaves an intricate tapestry of heart-stopping action, grief beyond comprehension, love that challenges society, innocence beyond modern understanding, abysmal despair, confusion and disappointment — all wrapped in a story that refuses to unhand the reader under any circumstance.

While the action is captivating and compelling, the characters are what make this such a memorable book. The central character is Jacob, whom we meet at both the beginning and the end of his life. Jacob the elder and Jacob the younger start out as separate characters who slowly merged into a single person.

As a youth who suffers a heartbreaking loss, Jacob the younger faces life in America during the Depression, where a Cornell education is worth only as much as the food it pays for. Almost immediately, however, readers meet Jacob the elder, an ancient man who can more easily recall his life in a third-rate circus than the faces of his extended family members. Both Jacobs are pretty much living in the same moment — especially when the circus sets up next door.

Jacob's tales weave together well. As Jacob's life progresses in the assisted living center, so does the story of his youth. His life and memory unfold deliberately and richly, and readers learn what took Jacob to (and back to) that heart-stopping scene. At the same time, readers begin to recognize Jacob as he sees himself — and the man we see is not the liver-spotted, slow, cranky man who does not recognize himself in the mirrors he refuses to use.

I truly enjoyed Gruen's circus characters: the train (which is a character itself), the castes and camaraderie, their treachery and kindnesses, their unfolding relationships. I thrilled at the exciting scenes and forced myself to continue reading when animals appeared to be in pain or face frightening situations. I was moved by the desperation and friendships that created situations in which people chose actions they would not otherwise consider. I also discovered how little people have changed in three-quarters of a century.

Gruen did not sentimentalize animals, but the affection and respect she showed them on the page — and how the characters treated them in kind — is central to the novel. I have to admit, I feared I might not be able to read the book because I am extremely sensitive about animals. I could read it, but it certainly was no walk in the park (or circus).

The scenes in the assisted living center were very stirring. Those whose bodies turn them into witnesses, rather than actors, provide intimate details and information about the situations and the people around them. I was moved by the sadness and lack of dignity in the life of an eldery man whose soul is literally saved by an unexpected kindness. I was very touched by those who, despite their own situation, could (and did) summon the patience to see beyond the anger and hostility to the person beneath it all.

I am glad I read Water for Elephants and I can see why so many people have read it. I hope you are one of them; if not, I hope you will be soon.


Carole said...

I love the way you describe the two Jacobs--I think that is one of the author's great strengths is how richly both Jacobs are drawn.

I was also enthralled with this book. Whenever I read about how people in our country's past have dealt with adversity, I'm always left thinking, "And we complain about how hard our lives are?!"

I also really liked how Gruen compares people's reactions to adversity--some never lose their humanity, no matter how desperate they are--and others forfeit their moral compass at the first opportunity.

Fair warning, there are some graphic scenes in this book, but hang in there to the end. It's worth it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recommendation.

Unlike books that "you can't put down", I purposely would put this one down from time to time so that I could extend my enjoyment of the plot and characters. And what a plot! This story worked on so many levels. It has "good vs. evil", romance, action, adventure, suspense, mystery, and a couple of unexpected twists at the end.

In all scenes, the author shows a good grasp of how both sexes act and speak in different circumstances. Her ability to do this along with the terrific plot should make "Water for Elephants" appealing to both men and women.

The author's extensive research and subsequent incorporation of circus anecdotes into the story gives us a interesting and almost documentary view into the hard times of the "Great Depression" era while describing both the glittery and tawdry sides of circus life of those days.

There are scenes of brutality involving mistreatment of people and an elephant but the book provides balance against those scenes through the two main characters. They act responsibly and with compassion in dire circumstances despite the tragic events affecting their own lives.

A pet peeve of mine is being constantly distracted by authors who wander from the story by writing long-winded and superfluous descriptions of things that have little or no bearing on the plot. A big plus of this book is how succinctly and vividly Sara Gruen sets her scenes. Perhaps her ability to do this was enhanced by the wonderful photos interspersed throughout the book.

I am also bothered by misuse of the vernacular. Sometimes it bothers me to the extent that I stop reading a book. The phrase "plum forgot" rather than the correct "plumb forgot" appeared on the next to the last page so, to put it mildly, I was pretty well hooked by then. How fortunate for me!

Carole said...

Thanks for the in-depth comments on the book. I agree that Gruen's story is tightly written--the elements she presents are there to advance the story.

Good for you taking the time to savor the book. I always say I'm going to do that, but if I really love a book, I can't put it down, and sadly it's over too soon.