Monday, October 06, 2008
monday book review: water for elephants, by sara gruen
The New York Times bestselling Water for Elephants is one of those sorts of books that finds me conflicted from the outset. On one hand, the subject matter is such that it's hard to imagine me not liking it. Since childhood, elephants have always been one of my favorite animals, and thanks to Carnivale (a television series that I loved more than most) I'm now a sucker for Depression-era circus stories. Based on those two points alone, this book appeared to have Mrs. White written all over it.  But on the other hand, Water for Elephants has become one of those "book club" reads, the vast majority of which are so often at odds with my personal tastes. (See, for example, my feelings regarding Jodi Picoult.) But winning the admiration of legions of middle-aged suburban housewives really shouldn't be reason enough to immediately dismiss something out of hand, so I gave it a shot in the hopes that the word "gritty" on the front cover was an apt descriptor.

And so was it? Well...sort of.

Jacob Jankowski, on the cusp of earning his Ivy League degree in veterinary medicine, suddenly abandons it all and joins the circus after the sudden, violent death of both of his parents.  But the fact that he never completed his degree is of little concern to The Benzini Brothers' Most Spectacular Show on Earth, as he quickly lands himself a job as the official vet of the circus menagerie.  But despite the glitter and the glamour, it doesn't take long for the dark underbelly of the circus to reveal itself to Jankowski, and the pinnacle of this darkness takes the form of August - the troupe's paranoid schizophrenic head animal trainer.   Predictably, August is married to a beautiful, animal-loving woman, for whom Jacob is immediately smitten.  And since August is violently unhinged, this forbidden romance proves to be a very Bad Thing.

I'd like to start by saying that had it ended as well as it began, then this review would have been a rave one.  Sure, Gruen's prose isn't anything to write home about, but I was so engrossed by the story she was weaving that, though I noticed it,  it never particularly bothered me.  But while I devoured the first one hundred or so pages, about mid-way through things took a bit of a turn.  Suddenly the gritty circus drama I had so been enjoying turned into a romance novel - pure and simple, and that's when I began to lose interest.  See, it's not that I mind romance novels exactly, but it wasn't what I was expecting, and I suppose I would have been willing to go along with it had  I been able to buy into the chemistry between Marlena and Jacob.  Though Jacob was fully-formed, Marlena's character felt flat to me, and I found myself not really caring whether or not those two crazy kids would ever get together.  Instead, I just really wanted more scenes involving Rosie the Elephant.  

And so in sum, Water for Elephants is a quick, easy, and fairly engaging story that had the potential for being a great book, but instead settled for merely being good; however, if you're a fan of the circus, historical fiction and romance novels, then it comes highly recommended.

Water for Elephants
Sara Gruen
2006, 335 pages

Labels: , , , ,


Blogger Mary said...

Now see, I really liked this book. I didn't like Marlena and you're right her character fell flat and the story sort of downgraded to a stupid love story when it could have been so much better. But I so completely loved the end of the book. It wasn't what I expected.

Blogger Mrs. White said...

I liked the ending too, and when all's said and done I did like this book. I guess the problem is that I wanted to love it!

Blogger paul said...

I'm a huge fan of the circus, hence I gave this one a spin right when it first came out. However, I am not (necessarily) a fan of historical fiction and romance novels, so in the end it was kinda meh.

I too found myself wanting more circus (and Rosie) at every turn. I think perhaps if maybe the historical circus business was more meticulously researched and well realized I would have like it better. However, by the time I was finished it kind of just bordered on chick lit for me. At least in how much I remember...

Post a Comment

<< Home