Friday, April 27, 2012

Sharing Good Books: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants - by Sara Gruen
As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

I seriously wish I could just say 'read it', but it deserves so much more than that. People have been telling me to watch the movie forever, and it's sat in my Netflix queue just as long. I honestly don't know why, either. Anything circus related usually has me chomping at the bit. I'm so, so glad that I didn't watch it, though, and read the book first. (EDIT--especially because I just watched it, and trust me, the book is so much better it's astounding.)

Imagine my surprise and delight when I got to my rental condo in Florida and one of the books on the shelf was Water for Elephants. I snatched it up, spun in circles, and exclaimed to the whole room how much I'd wanted to read it. We were in Sarasota, FL, so it was kind of perfect given Sarasota was the winter home of the Ringling Bros Circus. Caught up in this book, I desperately wanted to visit the Ringling Circus Museum, but at $25 a ticket, I passed on that. (I am full of regret and plan to rectify this next April. CIRCUS MUSEUM. Ugh. Damn me and my thrifty tendencies.)

I LOVED this book. Every few pages I'd tell my little sister exactly how much I loved it. I'm pretty sure she got sick of it.

I love Slaughterhouse Five for the narrative structure. (Among other things, of course.) I read it almost a decade ago, so am due for a reread, but it still sticks in my mind as brilliant. Vonnegut jumped around in time, and for some reason, that non-linear structure really does it for me. Too often I guess the end of movies and books, and I suppose I like non-linear because it's harder to see exactly what's coming. Not to mention it's just fun.

Water for Elephants is kinda like that, minus the aliens. We alternate between a young twenty-something Jacob, and a ninety-something Jacob (he can't quite recall anymore). Part of what makes it so fantastically done is that because of his advanced years, the flashbacks make sense. He loses track of time. The flow between past and present is handled magnificently. There's even a circus in the present time to tie it all together.

The characters are so real, sometimes disgustingly so. Sometimes I wanted to throw the book because I'd get so angry at August. I alternated between disgust, delight, terror, anxiety, and a whole other slew of emotions. It felt real. I was actually shocked when I finished the book and looked at the author and saw it was written by a woman. The male voice was so strong and authentic, I just assumed the author was male. That's good writing. She transported me.

I was so invested in these characters, I literally shouted I'd get so angry. In the present timeline, when Jacob's family let him down, I was pissed. I was more than pissed. I was livid. I turned to my sister and explained the whole situation just so I could have someone to complain to about how incredibly unfair and tragic it all was. (She's thirteen. I'm twenty-five. She humored me.) Jacob was a real person to me. He deserved better. Also, there were clever writerly things Gruen did that I appreciated. (Did I mention how much I love non-linear narrative?)

I actually think the least developed character to me was Marlena, which is kinda funny given she's the love interest. But maybe she was just a little overshadowed by some of the saltier characters like Walter. You could really see the passion the author had for the history of circus. It just felt so authentic and real. I also really enjoyed the photographs from the Ringling museum that were included.

Maybe it's just me, but I was most interested in Jacob's journey, so didn't care one way or another about the romance aspects. The parts that kept me reading were the intense parts... the redlighting and animal abuse. (Would everything turn out OK for Rosie?) I know a lot of the negative reviews I've seen focus on a 'contrived romance and thin character of Marlena.' If you're reading for the romance, this might be a problem for you. I didn't find it contrived. (Trust me. I've read my share of romances with unlikely fate-driven relationships. This was not one of them.) Personally, I wouldn't even classify this as a romance. That's just me, though. Without the romance, you'd still have a strong book, so take that how you will.

Sara Gruen wrote a truly remarkable book. It definitely deserved every little bit of hype it received, as well as its long stay on the NYT best-seller list. I literally cannot think of a negative thing to say about this book. It was executed perfectly. Plus, the cover is so damn cool.

Well, perhaps it gets a little graphic for younger readers. But it's seriously no more graphic than a romance novel, and I started to reading those in seventh grade. I certainly read things a lot more graphic for classes in high school. For high school aged students this would certainly be appropriate. It's a new classic and every single last one of you should trip over yourselves getting to the library to read it. I don't know what took me so long.

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