Flaunting the gritty glamour of a Depression-era traveling circus on its forefront, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is a bildungsroman of a young Polish boy who finds the glitz of love and happiness in a circus—and fights for it despite the danger that it’s juxtaposed with. With colors and grimness, dark humor and melodrama, this book sure tugs at the heart and imagination even if it has its own share of flaws and shortcomings.
The novel kicks off in a nursing home, with the ninety-year-old (or was it ninety-three?) Jacob Jankowski anticipating the arrival of a circus in town. He then recalls the highlights of his youth, which were focused on the time he spent with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. The readers are thrown into the 1930s America to witness how a tragedy leaves the foundation of all the dreams of a young Jacob, then a graduating veterinary student, tatty. Jacob is left orphaned, penniless, and heartbroken in the cusp of the Great Depression. As if the whistle of a coming freight train is a signal of a new direction, Jacob impulsively hitches a ride—and thus begins his life with the circus.
In a series of flashbacks interspersed with the present, Jacob’s unforgettable experiences in the circus unfold before the eyes of the readers—how he was devirginized by circus prostitutes; his bunking experience with Kinko/Walter, the midget clown; his relationship with the charming yet twisted animal trainer, August Rosenbluth; his illicit love for Marlena, equestrian star and August’s wife; his love for the animals in the menagerie, especially Rosie, the elephant; and many more.
I am surprised that a lot of readers refer to this tale only as a ‘love story’, when in fact other issues were touched by the book. For instance, the frame story explores topics about old age, primarily the disintegration of human memory and the attitude of the changing generation towards the elderly. Approaching death without your family by your side was lonely, and I felt old Jacob’s sadness despite his surface crabbiness.
History buffs will appreciate the book;the story’s backdrop was propped up by the Depression and it affected the whole novel. The Prohibition period in the United States especially churned the plot in different directions (although strictly not losing the romance as the focal point);the Jamaican Ginger paralysis played a vital role for one of the characters.
I warn prude folks though, there’s lots of odd, graphic sex in the book. There’s animal cruelty as well, and I admit it’s hard to read past through those parts. I just wish there were more touching animal stories since the protagonist is a vet student just shy of a degree, but the author didn’t dwell too much on that topic. This was just a tiny rant all right, since I think Gruen didn’t want to stray too far from the romantic center of the book.
Characterization was far from ace, which is a bit of a let-down for me. I liked the older Jacob a lot—perhaps it’s the voice the Gruen used when writing him—but it’s not hard to sympathize and like the young Jacob too. Kinko/Walter and Camel were fleshed out good, but I didn’t care for them enough to be sad after they’ve been redlighted. To my dismay, Marlena, the love interest, was such a one-dimensional Mary Sue. She stands up to one of the villains in the end, but that’s not enough to make up for her damsel-in-distress moments throughout the book. Maybe this is why I didn’t enjoy their love story that much. There’s a part where Walter tells Jacob that “she better be worth [all the mess they’ve been put through because of her]”, and if I were there, I’ll readily scream in Jacob’s ears that she’s not. But hey, I’m not the one who’s in love. *shrugs*
As for August, he’s the clear-cut villain from the very start, and I’m not sure if I appreciate it. Gruen seemed to use August’s mental illness and violent nature to emphasize that he’s the “bad one”, and she thinks that’s reason enough for the readers to consider Jacob and Marlena’s illicit love affair as a less sinful one.
Despite its apparent flaws, this is still a good read—I learned to love some parts of it. For the record, it’s rare for me to even like a rather hackneyed book especially if it has a happy ending (both for the frame story and the main story), but I like to consider Water for Elephants as an exception. Perhaps it’s the atmosphere of the book that I most liked, or the tone of the old man, but whatever it may be, this book will always have a special space in my shelf—and in my heart. :P After all, you don’t always get a ringside seat or a backstage pass in the 1930’s circus, right?