Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.

Jacob was there because his luck had run out - orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive 'ship of fools'. It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act - in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival. (From GoodReads)


So Water For Elephants, unfortunately, ended up being one of those books that everyone LOVES but I only liked. I usually attribute this to the fact that the most people are (mostly) non-readers in that they don't read as much I as, or other bloggers/reviewers, do. Not to sound elitist or anything, but when you read over a hundred books a year, your standards are usually a little higher than the average person. And that's ok. So I have learned to be wary of books that everyone has read and loved, because they tend not to meet my expectations.

Water For Elephants was that book. I know a lot of people, including critics, really liked this. But it didn't pack the punch that I was expecting. To start out, I absolutely loved the setting. I've never read anything about the circus, and coupled with the fact that the book takesduring the Great Depression, it makes Water For Elephants very intriguing. And the setting was the best part of the book. I loved learning about how the circus worked, and what it entailed. Those parts were my favorite.

As for the characters, there were some I liked and some I didn't. I liked Jacob a lot. I was really surprised at his gutsiness (is that a word?) to join the circus because he seemed like not a risk taker at all. And luckily for him, the Benzini Brothers Show was in desperate need of a veterinarian, and the fact that Jacob went to Cornell made it even better. Jacob is pretty sweet and innocent, in that he can't see any harm come to humans and animals alike. This naturally segues into his attraction for the beautiful, but boring, Marlena. Marlena is married to a charming and sometimes violent man, and it's obvious that Jacob feels compelled to protect her. I didn't dislike Marlena, but she is not interesting at all, and thus the relationship between her and Jacob is dull.

I also loved the elephant that Uncle Al, the circus's owner, buys during Water For Elephants. Rosie (the elephant) provides some comic relief, but turns out to have a personality of her own. For some reason, I was under the impression that Water For Elephants was going to be about the relationship between Jacob and Rosie as he tried to train her. The part where Jacob helps to train her is glossed over and you don't really see them interact that much. I was disappointed that that aspect wasn't fully explored.

I liked that the narrative is split between Jacob in his 20s and then Jacob in his 90s. It was neat to see where Jacob ended up with his life, but I would have rather read more about the circus because that is what I was really interested in.

All in all, I didn't hate nor love Water For Elephants, I merely liked it, which is a little disappointing. I really need to learn to have low expectations when reading a mass marketed book such as this. I still want to see the movie though, and see what the director does with this material.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

FTC: borrowed from library.

2006/Algonquin Books/331 pages.


We Heart YA said...

I probably would also have given the book a 7 or 8 out of 10, but to me that equates to more than "marginally like." So... not sure what that means, haha, but there it is.

I too was taken with the world Sara Gruen created/showed, and I generally agree with your review. Perhaps all the hype just ruined it for you. (That happened to me a lot, so I learned to wait until THE hype dies down before even trying.)

I saw the movie and really enjoyed it, as I thought it was a wonderful "translation" of the book to screen. The changes they make are relatively small, and the visuals (the big top going up, the train, Rosie) are gorgeous.


Simply_Megan said...

So I looked back over the review and decided to delete the "marginally like". I started out writing the review thinking that's how I was going to approach it but as I was writing I realized there were things I really liked, such as the setting! Thanks for pointing out the inconsistency! And I'm glad someone else has the same thoughts as me on this.