"Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen has spent weeks upon weeks on bestseller lists around the country. With its unique premise, readers and reviewers alike have raved about "the tatty glamour of Gruen's meticulously researched world" (The Washington Post) and how it "transform[s]a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale" (The New York Times Book Review).
While Gruen fills the pages of this novel with beautiful imagery and richly drawn characters, the hype around this depression-era circus tale is a little overblown. I was, of course, happily ensconsed in the depth of feeling toted around my Gruen's main character, Jacob Jankowski, and I found myself reaching for the next page again and again. Gruen's voice is enchanting and thoroughtly engaging. So, I won't make any claims to have not enjoyed reading this complexly detailed and excruciatingly emotional story. In fact, I enjoyed it quite a bit. But I do have some qualms about it that I can't seem to shake.
Firstly, I did not view Water for Elephants in the same light it seems as the reviewers from Publishers Weekly do when they say, "With its spotlight on elephants, Gruen's romantic page-turner hinges on the human-animal bonds[...]." Jacob, of course, had relationships with the animals in the menagerie, but I didn't feel that the book was at all about that bond. He's a vet; of course, he cares about the treatment of the animals. He spends all his working time with them too, so yes, he's going to form some sort of relationship with them. But this book did not hinge on that one bit in my opinion. Instead, Gruen's novel hinges on the personal relationships between the human characters: Jacob, Marlena, August, Walter, Camel, etc. To me, the animal relationships purely influenced the reader's feelings toward the humans. The animals liked Jacob and Marlena and they hated August and Uncle Al--their reactions amplified how I already felt about those characters.
The only potential horse of a different color here is Rosie, the lovable, hilarious elephant who finally gives August what he deserves when she hits him in the head with a stake, causing him to be stampeded. Parade Magazine goes so far as to call her the book's "majestic, mute heroine." But I can't wrap my head around that description, even with Rosie's role as the murdering, lemonade-stealing, Polish-speaking pachyderm. She doesn't even enter the book until more than halfway through, and while her presence in the book is suprememly entertaining and emotionally quite powerful at times (i.e. when August mistreats her and you watch from Jacob's POV), I don't feel like she plays that much of a role thematically. She kind of just does the dirty work for the characters, so the reader's opinion of Jacob (who possibly should have sliced August's throat like he intended to) wouldn't be soured and so there was no legal complications, while providing some comic relief.
I also am a bit bothered by the structural organization of this novel. I am all for flashbacks and parallel storylines when it's done with purpose, but here, I felt it was just done for the sake of doing it. The aging Jacob was reminiscing, sure, but he wasn't sharing the tale with another human, as in Big Fish where the father tells his son of his life in the circus. He was just remembering on his own, which seems a little bit pointless to me, especially given the fact that nothing really happens in the current day part of the story. All Gruen shows the reader here is a sad, lonely old man who has lost all his family (whether to death or to forgetfulness) and who pines after his youth. Maybe it wouldn't have bothered me so much if he told the story to Charlie at the circus; then at least it would've given the story a purpose. As it is though, it feels to me like Gruen was trying to use a technique common more often to literary than to commercial fiction, or that she used it purely to accomodate her prologue so she could tease that pivotal scene. Personally, I think the overall story would have been much more powerful without the older Jacob and had stuck to being a depression-era novel about a young man who lost everything and then found himself again in the most unlikely of places.
The other thing I'm struggling with after reading Water for Elephants is understanding why everyone thinks this is such an original novel. I do agree that Gruen did something special when she exposes the seedy underbelly of the circus in such a gritty and realistic way, but it's not as if it's never been done before. It hasn't been done often, granted, but it has been done. Big Fish, which I mentioned previously, is one very specific example. While Big Fish is a much more fantastical story that Water for Elephants, it still has a lot of the same basic plot points--a life-changing romance and an inside look at the circus. Gruen's voice in telling the story is what's so special here. Additionally, this story is more or less a patchwork of real-life events that took place throughout the history of the circus. While I am a firm believer in writing what you know, in researching a topic before you claim to know it, and by incorporating real life anecdotes and such into a piece of fiction, after reading Gruen's Author's Note I was incredibly disappointed that she took so much from fact and turned it into fiction. Almost all of the unique, humorous (and sometimes not so humorous) scenes in the book are based on actual accounts and not, as I had thought, a product of Gruen's imagination. It was a bummer to say the least.
The last word: A brilliantly written, but not-so-brilliantly crafted, and engaging novel with characters who stay with you long after you finish reading--it just could have used a little more editing.