Book review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I bet you think that I frequent libraries since I am a librarian. This would be a logical assumption, but a wrong one. Even though I live a mile from the gorgeous main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, I rarely go there. In the past, the only times I entered its hollowed halls was when I was going to a particular conference that gives extensive required reading lists. I did that conference three times, I think. So three. Three summers that I spent some time at the library. Otherwise, not so much.

But having a baby changes everything, as the commercial tells us. The biggest thing I have found changed, other than the joy and worry and fatigue, is that I walk. I, a fibromyalgic shut-in with an epic distaste for the outdoors, can now walk an easy two miles without even paying for it in pain the next day. Nearly every day, I take the Beck to a baby playground nearly a mile away. When we leave, he often naps in the stroller and he stays asleep if I keep moving. So one hot, humid day, I wished I had a place to keep moving that was air conditioned. And then I realized we were about 3 minutes away from the library.

I am a lover of contemporary fiction but I have felt extremely out of the loop for the past half decade. My work requires that I keep abreast of all the latest developments in kid lit and that has been enough to fill my reading time. When I started working in Brooklyn and lost my subway commute, I read far less and the reading time I did get was really taken up with kid books. My only grownup book time was vacations. And, honestly, I can’t read when in turmoil – I lose my attention span. So with ttc and miscarriage and all that, I just didn’t feel like reading.

So there I was, looking for something to do and something to read while Beck slept. The fiction section has a display of recommended fiction and I felt drawn to this book right away. It has a good cover and a circus theme. Two circus books are firmly implanted in my memorable books list (Geek Love and A Son of the Circus), so it’s a theme I dig right away. I grabbed it somewhat impulsively, knowing full well that it could be something I just dragged home only to have to drag back unread in two weeks. I got Beck some board books while I was there so it wouldn’t be a waste of checkout time.

I read the first few pages right away, the dramatic prologue that certainly sets the stage for mystery and drama: a stampede, a murder, a setting and language that firmly plant us in a specific time and world. It’s a Depression era circus, a somewhat depraved and desperate place. I knew I wanted to read more but put the book down for a few days to finish something else. I found that I kept wanting to go back to it, though.

The book flashes back and forth from the past circus to the present, where our main character, Jacob, is 90-ish and living in a nursing home. He is in good mental health but his body is failing him a bit. He is edgy and anxious and bored. And a bit bitter about the state of things – the nurses, the food, the company of other old people.

Through the flashbacks, we learn Jacob’s story. He comes to the circus very much by accident because of a family tragedy that leaves him penniless and alone. He is almost a veterinarian and once the circus figures this out, they very much want to keep him on to care for the menagerie. He quickly feels connected to these animals and they keep him emotionally tethered to the place even when events occur that should send him running.

August the animal keeper, Jacob’s boss, is a charming and terrifying man. He is a talented animal trainer on his best days, a generous husband and friend. On his bad days, when things don’t go his way, he is ruthless and sickeningly cruel. There are some hard passages to read in this book, though the author does a good job of setting the worst cases of animal cruelty “offstage,” as it were, so that our imaginations take care of the details.

August’s wife, Marlena, is the star of the liberty horses act and a skilled horse trainer. Jacob immediately feels drawn to her beauty and love of animals but fears for her safety because of her brutal husband. A dangerous love triangle develops here, with Jacob receiving constant invitations from August for dinners and excursions. He can’t refuse August, but his feelings for Marlena become dangerously close to the surface.

The story of these three is set among the characters of a typical old time circus – the dwarf clown, the roustabouts, the cooch tent prostitute, the newly-acquired circus elephant who is either very stupid or very smart. Overseeing all is the ringmaster whose ambition to surpass Ringling drives him to give merciless and deadly orders when things aren’t going well. People aren’t paid. People go missing.

I couldn’t put this book down. I read it late into the night with that “just one more chapter” feeling you get from well-built suspense. I even read the interview with the author at the end and all the book club questions, which is rare for me. There I learned that the author did extensive research into circuses of the time and that many of the craziest details are true, or at least as true as circus history can be.

The end came too quickly, as it does when you are enmeshed in a fictitious world you love. In some ways, the final present-tense outcome seemed far-fetched to me, impossible. But when you are writing about the circus, perhaps anything is possible. And whether it rang true or not, it hit the right note on an emotional level.

Highly recommended.

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About Briar

* I am a school librarian. In every possible way. * I am married to a wonderful man named Wes. When we met (blind date, 1996) he was female and I was a staunch lesbian. Over time, he realized he was really supposed to have been born a boy and I realized I was really attracted to trans-folk. So it all worked out rather well. * I have a 21 year old stepson. My husband is his mother. Yes. I refer to him on this blog as GMB (Gargantuan Man Boy). * Wes and I both suffer from major, chronic depressive disorders. We have both been free of any catastrophic episodes (and mental hospitals) for more than 8 years, but still - sometimes our house is BIG fun. * I have always wanted to be a mother. Using donor sperm, I started trying to get pregnant in May of 2005. I got my first positive blood test on July 27, 2006 - this was a result of my seventh IUI cycle, my second on Clomid with trigger shots. I used an HCG booster 6dpo to keep my progesterone up (I had a luteal phase defect). On August 29th, when I thought I was 9 weeks pregnant and after seeing the heartbeat the week before, I went for my first OB appt and found out that the baby had died around 8 weeks, 2 days - about 3 days after I saw it. I had a Manual Vacuum Aspiration the next day which was hideous but quick. Pathology report indicated a triploidy - 3 complete sets of chromosomes. Our first try back after the disaster worked. Beckett Ace was born in August 2007. * My mother died when I was 20 years old. She had cervical cancer. She hadn't had a pap smear in more than three years. Please visit your gynecologist regularly. * We have a dog and 2 cats. For many years we had pet rats, too, but they have very short lifespans and broke our hearts. If we hadn't had a baby, I shudder to think how many animals we would have acquired. * I have a pain disorder/syndrome called fibromyalgia. I am in at least some pain nearly all the time. * We both love to travel. Wes loves glaciers and animals and his dream vacations are Antarctica, Patagonia, Galapagos, and Kangaroo Island (Australia). My dream vacation is a World Cruise. * I am frequently bitchy, bitter, angry, moody, cranky, or whiny. It's why you love me.

3 thoughts on “Book review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

  1. we actually have this book, someone gave it to Klove to read. Klove loved it and told me I should read it, but couldn’t tell me why and wouldn’t tell me any of the plot so I just put it on my shelf of Books To Read When I’m Really Bored. But maybe I’ll pull it off now. You make it sound very interesting and compelling.

  2. i read this book, too, and also loved it. i agree about the ending. nice review. and congrats on getting to the awesome library so close to you guys!

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