Thursday, 9 October 2014

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Jacob Jankowski is a veterinary student about to sit his final exams when he receives the devastating news that his parents have been killed.  Desperate and unable to cope, he hitches a ride on a freight train that turns out to house the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.  The circus has fallen on hard times due to the Great Depression but Jacob's background ensures him a job as the circus vet.  Jacob is seduced by the exotic animals, glamour and romance of the circus life, but there are darker currents running underneath the sequins and glitter.  When he falls in love with married performer Marlena and the circus acquires Rosie the elephant, Jacob finds himself tested.

As always, I bought this book when it was surrounded by a lot of hype but then failed to read it in a timely manner.  I also failed to see the film, so I went into Water for Elephants with completely fresh eyes.  I was expecting a light, sentimental type read, and that's exactly what it was.  Even though Water for Elephants discusses some heavier themes such as animal cruelty, murder and the brutality of circus life, it does so in a Spielberg-esque way that left me in no doubt that things would be OK in the end.  It's like life without the sharp edges, and it makes for comfortable if not challenging reading.

My favourite element of Water for Elephants was the setting.  I'm not surprised this novel was turned into a film, as it's so visually evocative of both the time period and of the circus.  I could almost smell the popcorn and taste the excitement that the circus bought to the dreary towns it stopped in.  I also really enjoyed the character of Marlena, who had more guts than I initially took her to have.  The bits dealing with Rosie and the other animals made me want to try Gruen's novel Ape House, as I liked the way the animals were characters in themselves.

However, there were some flaws.  Jacob falls in love with a married woman, which could have made for some interesting complexity in the novel, but Gruen shies away from this by making her husband to be a bad guy.  This seemed a little too convenient for the plot.  As I mentioned above, there's never any doubt that things will end well for Jacob, and this takes away some of the tension.   Despite this, Water for Elephants is a really fun, escapist read.  I loved immersing myself in the world of the circus for a while.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2006
Edition Read: Two Roads, 2011
Score: 3.5 out of 5

13 comments:

  1. This is one of those books that I've picked up and put back down a few times. It really takes away the dramatic tension when you know that things are going to work out, doesn't it??

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    1. Yes it does - it's one of my pet peeves when authors do this.

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  2. I enjoyed both the novel and the film. Glad I spotted your review as I am in the mood to check both again!
    All the best,

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    1. Hope you enjoy them the second time round :)

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  3. I loved this one! Definitely escapist reading and I love the whole circus setting too :)

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    1. Have you read Night Circus? More escapist circus fun :)

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    2. I haven't actually -- it's on my shelf though and I've been meaning to read it forever!

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  4. I've had this book for SO LONG and never got round to reading it. I think I'm scared of the hype because I'm very aware of how amazing it's supposed to be. I DID read Ape House, Sara Gruen's other book, and that was very very good.

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    1. Glad to hear Ape House is very good, I'm looking forward to getting to it.

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  5. I read this years ago while baby-sitting at someone's house, because it was the only book around besides Atonement and I'd already had it with that crap. Not the most conducive circumstances for enjoying a book, and indeed I very much did not enjoy it. Circus books nearly always depress me! I want them to cheer me up, but mostly they make me sad. All the animals.

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    1. I'm glad times have moved on in terms of animal welfare, but we still do have a little way to go.

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  6. I loved this book when I read it years ago, but I doubt I would love it as much if I had read it now. There were some convenient story points that took away some complexity from the plot. But yes, it was so visual and beautiful.

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  7. Water for Elephants is a delightful, moving book, and the ending was a very pleasant surprise. Also, if you want a special treat, listen to it on audiobook. The two readers, David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones, did a wonderful job of bringing both Jacobs (young and old) to life.
    Top Alaska Fishing Lodge Information, recommended

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