Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen
- Date finished: Feb. 27
- Genre: Fiction
- Year: 2006
- Project: n/a
- Reading List: Winter 2012-13
- Grade: C
- Thoughts upon finishing:
I read Water for Elephants because it was one those books. The kind of books everyone talks about (even if they were talking five years ago). The kind of books they make Nicholas Sparks-esque movies about. So many people read it, it was reviewed so many times — it has to be kinda good, right?
And it was. The story isn’t bad. In fact, it’s pretty engaging. Gruen definitely knows her stuff when it comes to circuses, and to be honest, that was the main reason I was looking forward to it. I feel like she gave readers a good look into the world of circus life, circa 1931, and it’s nothing if not interesting. I’d like to read more, in fact.
However, the circus talk was also the main reason I kept going, which isn’t so good because I have to say, the drama in Water for Elephants is pretty disappointing. Young vet who’s lost everything randomly joins the circus after his parents die, he falls in love with the pretty lead performer, is pitted against her crazy mean husband who’s also his boss, etc, etc. I mean, it sounds like a solid story, right? Yeah, a little predictable, but solid.
So why didn’t I like it? The stupid characters. I could not care about Jacob even I tried. There’s something about him that’s so…flat? Silly? Predictable? When his parents die at the beginning of the novel, it’s like any semblence of a personality Jacob has goes with them. After that, he’s thrown into these crazy situations and he spends the entire novel reacting to them. And don’t say that falling in love with the pretty performer is special. Besides his understandable affection for the animals, he doesn’t seem to believe in anything, or stand for anything. He dislikes the pretty performer’s husband because he’s a cruel son-of-a-bitch, but then, who doesn’t?
Plus, I think this may be a fault of Gruen’s, but Jacob seems to spend the entire novel in some heightened state of emotion. He’s always yelling, or rushing somewhere, or flushing, or getting angry, or feeling swept away by love. I don’t know, he just doesn’t seem like a real person. I can’t imagine why the pretty performer ends up falling in love with him…maybe he’s cute?
Some other pet peeves with this book:
- 1931 Jacob and the modern day Jacob in the nursing home are nothing like each other. While young Jacob is pretty emotional, he has none of the personality of his older self.
- At first I didn’t mind, but by the last quarter of the book, I was really tired of Gruen’s silly way with language. She’s a big fan of adverbs and tends to over-describe everything. Eating a hamburger seems crazy dramatic: “He plants his elbows on the rough gray wood of the table and picks up his burger. I stare at mine, wondering if I can choke it down.” Really, Jacob?
- What’s with that ending!? Maybe I’m used to the nitty-gritty, realistic, non-happy-happy endings of literary fiction but (spoiler alert!), Water for Elephants ends with the equivalent of “They rode off into the sunset.” It’s like, after everything that happens, that’s how you’re going to end it? Sounds like Gruen gave up.
But, like I said, I liked the circus part. Ever since I read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of circuses and freak shows and the people who populate them. Dunn brings readers into the startling interior world of her complex characters. Gruen, not so much.
All that being said, here are the two best characters in the entire novel: Walter, the dwarf clown and Rosie the elephant. Seriously, I think that elephant has more going on inside her head than stupid Jacob. And in the end, it’s Rosie who has the guts to put an end to all the melodrama.
I think the movie probably sums up Water for Elephants pretty well:
Pretty, fantastical, interesting world. Boring as a sackcloth Robert Pattison leading the way.