Friday, June 15, 2012

Book Review: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen
A few weeks ago I posted about trying books in new genres. My first foray was, “the return” by Sophie Hislop. The book left me with mixed feelings. Next on the list was the popular, “Water for Elephants,” a book known to many probably due to the film adaption starring Robert Pattison and Reese Witherspoon.
I tend to find popular books a bit hit and miss but I’d watched a two minute scene from the film when flicking through the channels recently and it was enough to get me interested in the blog.
The blog:
When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, grifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her.
My experience of reading about circus life in a normal genre is non-existent. I’ve read, the excellent, “the Troupe” recently and also “Something wicked this way comes,” but both were more fantasy/horror.
“Water for Elephants” was my first venture in this type of novel. As most regular viewers know, I prefer my novels to contain strong interesting characters rather than action or plot driven, “Water for Elephants” has a wealth of such characters on display.
The novel starts with an elderly man, struggling to come to terms with his age and begrudging the fact he is in a residential home. In truth he is the most likeable of people but Sara Gruen captures his frustration well. The story then splits to his younger life and it is here the story begins in earnest with constant trips back to the older Jacob.
Jacob could easily have been the robotic protagonist that we so often see in novels. The type that allows the other interesting characters to shine around him. To a certain extant he is, but in a very good way. He is naive, but never annoyingly so. He struggles between his conscience as he longs to do what is right and learning to accept the code of the circus lifestyle. It works well as reader learns at the same pace as him.
The members of the circus he interacts with are all intriguing. It would have been easy for Sara Gruen to define them purely by the acts they perform, but quite often their acts supplement their characters. For example, security are more than the tough guys they first appear to be.
Kinko the clown is perhaps the best of these. The relationship he has with Jacob is a delight to read, but Big Al and especially August are great creations.
The romance element to the book is well handled. It is prominent but without being dominant. Which leaves the real star of the novel to shine through – the circus and animals themselves. Rosie the elephant is so well written she is almost like a human character.
Sara details how she went about researching the novel, including studying the animal’s behaviour etc. I am no expert but the resultant novel feels very authentic and I would say the era and lifestyle has been captured perfectly.
One thing I was delighted to read is that a lot of the events involved in the novel are lifted from old circus stories. It is nice to think there is an element of truth to the novel particularly with some of the more outlandish behaviour of the animals.
As you may have guessed, I loved this novel. The ending is very touching and pretty much all a reader could ask for. Sara Gruen’s affection for the subject matter oozes through the pages. One of my favourite reads this year.
My rating: 9.3

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