2008: 85. Water For Elephants

“Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. Grady and I sat at a battered wooden table, each facing a burger on a dented tin plate.”

Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen

One upon a time I read Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, and wrote about how I sometimes missed out on good stories because they were popular fiction, and my tastes tend towards the more literary, or more genre (all those mysteries, and YA).  So, I thought Water For Elephants, which everyone seems to be reading, and is super popular, yaddi yadda, might be a similar read, and bought it at the airport.  Alas, not so much.


Water For Elephants isn’t a terrible book.  In fact, it has some extremely interesting elements.  It is told by Jacob, an older man in a nursing home, reflecting back on his life, particularly the time he spent in the middle of the Great Depression living on a third rate circus.  Gruen has done her research on circuses, and vividly captures how seedy and cruel they were, particularly at at time when no one had enough money or food.  The things that transpire are extremely violent, but Gruen makes them seem credible - I believed that life in the circus was that bad.  


And yet, the book over all left me cold.  I didn’t enjoy reading it, because I never really got captured by the story.  I appreciated her research, but her characters (beyond, perhaps, the narrator and the dwarf, Walter), didn’t seem like real people, and many were so two dimensional as to make it difficult to keep them straight (all those circus tough guys).  Plus the ending (of the modern story, not the 1930’s story) was so out of left field* that it left me with a sour taste in my mouth.**  So, I appreciate Gruen’s effort, and it’s a fine book, I guess, but hardly worthy of the attention its getting.  Must be that pretty cover.


Ok, spoilers, but why, if Jacob was so happy with his wife, are we to believe that his life is so terrible and his children have deserted him and he is just going to leave them and forget about them? Gruen seems to have decided that the mere act of placing someone in a nursing home means their family doesn’t care about them, and to have decided it in the last chapter, no less.  Blergh. 


** Someone on the internet suggested that maybe the ending was a delusion in Jacob’s head - that he had made it up.  That would be clever (a sort of attempt to return to happier times, not that his time on the circus was really that happy), but there was nothing in the text to suggest as much, particularly when he was otherwise portrayed as sharp and with his facilities. 


Date/Place Completed: 5/20/08; flying home to D.C. from Boston

Categories: Fiction

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017