Written by Lauryn Smith
Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants” is my favorite book. It is the best. The absolute best. The story’s plot is unusual, but, man, is it presented well.
“Water for Elephants” is the fictional story of Jacob Jankowski, who in his twenties loses his parents in a car crash. Despondent and penniless, he walks out of his final veterinary school examination, and after hours of wandering, jumps a random freight train.
It is what this train holds that changes his life.
Gruen presents Jacob’s tale as if it were being told by his adult self, or rather his 90- (or 93-) year-old self. Widowed and alone in a nursing home, Jacob rejects the life he is now forced to live—mushy and flavorless food, tranquilizers, sponge baths, supervised trips to the bathroom. But one day, the circus sets up shop in the parking lot across the street, exciting all of the facility's residents, Jacob in particular.
Why? Because that train he jumps as a young man belongs to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth—a traveling circus.
As luck would have it, the Benzini show needs a veterinarian, giving Jacob enjoyable, albeit dirty, work. In this glamorous, lively retreat in a United States afflicted with prohibition and the Depression, Jacob finds love and passion—as well as wickedness.
Though perhaps not Gruen’s sole purpose, her portrayal of old age in the 21st century is impeccable. The elderly Jacob is completely sympathetic. It is easy to understand and empathize with his frustrations, his lack of control, his monotonous routine. Gruen’s juxtaposition of the current-day Jacob with the 1930s Jacob, and the balance and distinct nature of each, enhances the color of the book’s main storyline, namely that of Jacob’s early exposure to circus life, his falling in love with the head animal trainer’s wife and his defense of the show’s animals.
Gruen is simply brilliant. Her imagination is powerful, and she brings so much life and realism to the book’s host of characters, setting and context. Her writing is effortless.
I have seen critiques to the contrary. The one I have seen most often is that the story is predictable. I will acknowledge that there is a degree of predictability, but not much. Granted, perhaps I am of that opinion because I do not have much background knowledge when it comes to Depression-era circuses or the darkness inherent to many industries during this point in time.
I have also seen complaints that the characters in "Water for Elephants" are sometimes flat. The only one I can pinpoint as being somewhat unexciting is Marlena, the woman Jacob falls for. Of course, there are secondary characters who as such are flat out of necessity—a common literary element. Marlena is the married, sequined woman who stars in the dancing horse and elephant acts. She is lovely and kind… and, sure, these traits make her a little bland. However, her daintiness, refinement and evenness lend the story half its charm, particularly given the rough-around-the-edges nature of nearly everything else in the book.
Now, I have read this book before. I have read it twice before, actually. And I can promise you that I will read it again. If you need a book that lets your imagination wander, a book that lets you think, a book that lets you simply enjoy reading, a book that is beautifully written and well-structured—this is the one.
By the way, “Water for Elephants” has been made into a movie. If you choose to see it, let me request one thing from you—please read the book first. The nuances you will pick up from reading it will make the movie much more fun to watch. Sometimes, movies do not live up to their books, and in this case, the book is hard to live up to. So like I said—book first!
“Water for Elephants” can be taken seriously, but it is also lighthearted. Genuinely thought-provoking elements are present throughout—take the commonness of the struggle to survive in the 1930s, or even elderly persons’ oftentimes unnoticed struggle for respect and independence. Yet they are intricately intertwined with pomp and spectacle, making for quite an enjoyable and amusing read for any adult audience.
Title: Water for Elephants: A Novel
Author: Sara Gruen
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication date: May 26, 2006
Page count: 335
List price: $14.95
Awards: 2007 Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Adult Fiction; 2007 ALA Alex Award
Nominations: 2006 Quill Award Nominee for General Fiction
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