Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Genre: Fiction, slightly historical
Publisher, Year: Algonquin, 2006
Other Works: Riding Lessons
Flags: Moderate Language, Adult Themes, VERY Explicit References
Rating: B- or Not Sorry I Read It
Premise: An old man looks back at his summer with a traveling circus: tyrannical ringmaster, beautiful horse dancer, Rosie the elephant, cantankerous little person, and a thatch of bright red hair. Finally, one fateful night brings Jacob’s adventurous three months to an end.

I surprised myself with this book. I actually ended up quite liking it, although I enjoyed the second half much more than the first. Gruen is an amazing and talented writer—I thoroughly enjoyed her style. She has a great vocabulary. I just got the feeling that every word I read was distinctly and perfectly correct, like each word had been pored over and debated, until just right: baby bear’s chair to Goldilocks. It was really something.

That being said, she lost me in the beginning. She’s lucky I made it past the 4th chapter, which contains an all-too-well-documented strip tease. And there were several more speed bumps to hit before I felt I was home free. I don’t think authors realize the power of the imagination. I don’t get why everything’s got to be so spelled out all time. +/-
A perfectly beautiful story, ruined by gratuitous sex (yet again). I can get the picture without every gritty detail. And I suppose that was the point—to paint a picture of just how gritty “circus” culture was, but I get it already. Leave something to the imagination. I just don’t think it adds to the story. But, I have to admit that I’m glad I made it past. I really loved these characters. They were engaging and interesting, and terrifying. And I can’t say I’m sorry I read it.

I loved the frame story, I thought it added so much to Jacob’s character. To go back and forth also gave me some sort of relief, as young Jacob’s life became more and more turbulent, I knew old Jacob would be around the corner, tucked in his wheelchair with a little cup of Jello. It led me to believe that everything would be alright in the end, and I think that made it possible for me to become more invested in the story and allow myself to connect with the characters.

That being said, elderly Jacob is not at all content, and I think Gruen did an amazing job of describing that period of life when the body begins to fail while the mind is still sharp. It’s hard for me to imagine such a time, and I think it’s hard for any young person to really grasp what that must feel like. Gruen captured it perfectly, and the tragedy of old age became so tactile for me.

I really enjoy a book that explores the differences between illusion and reality, and how they can get tied up together and mistaken for each other. There was so much deceit and trickery surrounding these characters, sometimes it was hard to know which way to turn. I want to say that we’ve changed since then, that things are better now: that humans act more human. But, then, there is just as much greed and selfishness in the world today as there ever was. It just manifests itself in different ways. I guess the comforting thing about that is, that if there is just as much evil, there must also be just as much benevolence. There must be as many caring, generous people, too.

I think Water for Elephants, although brutal and cruel, also carries that message of hope. A hope for mankind, but also on an individual level, a Ulysses if you will. There is always an adventure waiting to be discovered, no matter how what the circumstances. Because of the explicit content, unfortunately I would not recommend this book.

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