Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants”

Much as I loved Sara Gruen’s Riding Lessons and Flying Changes, I knew they were on-the-job training. After all, there’s Water for Elephants perched on the New York Times best-seller list. And well-deserved. People clearly love this book, and Gruen is such a crackerjack writer that it was a real pleasure to see her widen her scope and achieve something bigger and richer than her previous novels.

I was really impressed by the double frame that starts it off.  First Jacob Jankowski is in the midst of a crisis under a circus tent — that’ll grab you by the throat. Then Jacob is 93, in a retirement home, subject to all the indignity that entails. Then we finally get back to Jacob Jankowski, age 23, effectively running away to join a circus in the 1930s.  Depression, prohibition, trains, hoboes, roustabouts, the whole thing. Lots of big characters including the lovely Marlena, the equestrian performer in pink sequins, the red-headed dwarf Kinko, and a wonderful elephant with a sense of humor and a sense of justice.

Gruen goes back and forth between Jacob’s florid circus past and his dreary nursing-home present. Please note, both the circus and the nursing home are highly ritualized closed communities. Fortunately Gruen knows how to make a story lively so the linoleum-and-rubber-food version is used as punctuation, almost to bring down the high emotional pitch of the circus narrative.

I knew she had to have done a ton of research. This is just not material a writer has at her fingertips. But boy, did it ever feel authentic. Sights, smells, sounds, the grand structure and the small detail are all in place. My problem with the book is a question of taste rather than execution: it was just a little feverish for me, kind of a Baz Luhrmann vision of something that’s already pretty thrilling. And the end struck me as corny, if perfectly appropriate. Maybe the difficulty is that the contrast Gruen sets up, between the circus and the nursing home, is so great as to be irreconcilable. Maybe there isn’t much room left for average plain-vanilla normal life. On the other hand, perhaps it’s a fable and I’m reading the whole thing too literally. Lord knows that would be nothing new.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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2 Responses to Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants”

  1. arichlen says:

    I disagree with your corny comment. I thought the ending was unexpected and just plain sweet. When it looked as though Jacob wasn’t going to get to the circus, my heart was breaking for him. The strength of the character came out, and not just physically, by having him get there on his own. For his own children to have such little regard for him but then to have it turn around with Charlie’s respect for an old man was touching. It’s not very realistic, but I thought it was a lovely end. But I’ve always liked the happy endings…
    I also loved that little bits of the novel were based on information Gruen came across when researching for her book.
    What about finding out who actually murdered August? Were you surprised?

  2. carolwallace says:

    Yes, I hadn’ t thought about that side of it: that the ending showed Jacob’s strength. Good point — and it’s always fun when an ending makes you look back and think about the whole book differently, don’t you think?

    And yes! I was astounded to find out who actually murdered August! But so very satisfied, weren’t you? I was so glad that Rosie took revenge.

    Thanks for commenting, and for adjusting my attitude about the ending — Carol

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