Saturday, April 11, 2009

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen

I will read any book with elephants in it... Does anyone remember Gerald Durrell's 'Rosy is my Relative'? I think it is one of the funniest books ever written and I have lost count of how many times I have read it.
'Water for Elephants' has as its protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, living in a nursing home that he hates. Jacob is querulous and upset that his family thought it necessary to keep him here.
In his nineties, Jacob has seen all that there is of life. As Jacob struggles to cope with being old, his memories of the circus are partly triggered off by a kind nurse called Rosemary who is his only friend at the home.
Going back and forth in time, the story juxtaposes a young, dashing, courageous Jacob against the old man who has lived his life to the fullest and wants to die with dignity. The non linear aspect of the novel is further reinforced by the travel motif as the circus moves from town to town.
The death of his parents in a car accident while Jacob was a veterinary student at Cornell also leaves him penniless. This being the era of the Depression, Jacob finds himself unable to cope with the double shock of bereavement and financial ruin.
He runs away and boards a train that is carrying a circus, the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Here opens a world that is both bizarre and surreal. Memorable characters include the brutal Uncle Al, the ringmaster who when unable to pay his circus team simply has them thrown off the train and the paranoid schizophrenic August who is married to the ravishing Marlena.
If violence and murder are not enough complications, Jacob falls in love with Marlena and has to outwit both Uncle Al and August to win her. Marlena herself is rather flat and boring - she only comes alive when she is with her horses.
The review cannot be complete without the beautiful Rosie, the elephant, who finally engineers a happy ending for Marla and Jacob. Rosie is responsible for many of the circus' financial problems until Jacob figures out the only reason she is not obeying is because she doesn't understand English. But the breakthrough may have come just too late to save the circus.
The breath taking detail of circus life and the animals as well as Depression era America shows hours of meticulous research and create a living, breathing world for the reader.
I admire the complete control over the timeline Gruen shows... but am unhappy with the vast number of cliches she uses - both to further the plot and in terms of characterization. The young Jacob, despite his heroism, is far less appealing than the gusty, old Jacob who decides he will not "go gentle into the good night".
If you are a big fan of circuses and link them with happy memories of childhood, be prepared to see the underbelly, ugly, dark and cruel.
The book is being made into a movie - will Rosie steal the thunder? I certainly hope so!


  1. This book sounds like a Bollywood film from the seventies, right down to the vengeful elephant. I agree, characters were stock cliches. But loved Jacob the spunky senior citizen, and cheered at the way things turned out for him.

  2. I am beginning to wonder why all the books I review are just asking to be made into Bollywood movies? :-)
    I agree with you - Jacob is truly the saving grace of the book.