Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Does anyone else find it ridiculous that I took Virginia Woolf and How to Read a Book to the beach and started this one upon my return?  Perhaps it is actually sensible:  I get more focused reading time on vacation than at home, so I can get through some difficult works more quickly there.  Seems to make sense to me.

Anyhow, I finished Water for Elephants last night to considerable internal grumbling.  This bestseller has been ubiquitous among book groups and casual readers, so a full plot summary seems unnecessary.  For those few who haven't read it, though, the basic idea is that Jacob Jankowski is in his nineties and living in an assisted living facility.  When the circus comes to town, he reflects on his experiences with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.  Through his flashbacks, we meet the evil August (the polished and charming equestrian director, who also happens to be a violent paranoid schizophrenic) and his wife, Marlena, who is the beautiful and gifted animal performer that Jacob falls in love with.  It is a typical love triangle romance set in a unique environment with some interesting historical cues thrown in.

The concept is a good one, and the elder Jacob is an interesting and fairly well-drawn character.  For the most part, his struggles with aging seem realistic.  My only trouble comes from the recurring reference to him not knowing how old he is ("I am ninety.  Or ninety-three.  One or the other.")  My limited experience with someone who has aged past the point of keeping track of time has shown this struggle to be terribly problematic and often resulting in anger, not a flippant mention.  The younger Jacob is less appealing, but I was interested in the story at the beginning.  By the time I reached the end, I was frustrated.  The book is not great.  It is rather thinly written, and the reviewers who have commented on her cliches are spot on.  But as an entertaining and unchallenging read, it hits its market successfully.  My major problems come from the externals of this book.

The back cover quotes The New York Times Book Review when it says Gruen "saves a terrific revelation for the final pages."  Having read that comment before starting, I was poised for something huge at the end.  I couldn't understand how it would be possible since Gruen chooses the classic in medias res technique and shows us the climax (albeit a veiled version) in the prologue.  Unfortunately, the ultimate "twist" was anti-climactic.  The other issue is with all these books coming with a Book Group Study Guide in the back.  This one has an interview with the author, which I often appreciate, and a set of discussion questions.  These questions make me crazy!  If you are a reader who is planning to discuss a book, you come to your group with passages marked, things you liked, things that made you angry, and things that you were curious about.  You don't need a set of ridiculously stilted questions to "get you started."  In fact, these questions could end up functioning like endnotes can: they make you feel you can't trust your own reading of the book.

Case in point:  both the Book Group questions and the interview include Gruen's claim that the "backbone" of her story is the biblical story of Jacob found in Genesis.  After reading these comments (especially Gruen's statement, "I thought it would be a fun thing to play up for people who recognized it."), I felt inadequate.  As a careful reader and someone who is fairly familiar with the Old Testament, I condemned myself for missing something big.  So, I reread Jacob's story in Genesis and considered again Jacob Jankowski's story.  Ultimately, I must conclude the parallels are not strong enough to call this biblical text the backbone of the story.  There simply are not enough points of similarity.  Sure, Jacob slept with his head on a rock too, but he ended up speaking to (and later wrestling with!) God before the night was over.  Jacob J. just joins the circus.  Jacob J. had five children, so he was considered fairly fertile, but the original Jacob was the father of the Jewish people.  Finally, it makes no sense at all that the most evil character in the book was Jewish if you are supposedly making your hero parallel with a great Jewish forefather.  She didn't "play up" anything.  In fact, it makes me wonder if someone pointed out the connection between the names and rock sleeping after the fact.  I just cannot believe it was a driving force in the writing of the original narrative.

These unfortunate endpieces made for an overall unsatisfying experience.  Without them, I could have enjoyed the book for what it was and left it alone.  Instead, I'm left questioning the motives of the author and the publisher and feeling like the book got cheated in the process.


  1. Interesting observations about the Book Discussion just-add-water philosophy they have with throwing all those questions in the back. I'm encouraged to believe I've been wise to ignore them. As a Biblical semi-geek, I think I'd be fairly annoyed by the Jacob thing, too. Maybe if they said "inspiration" rather than backbone, something effervescent rather than crucial.

    By the way, enjoying this blog, and moreso admiring your efficiency in digesting books. I just started "A Wedding in December" by Anita Shreve. I'll be lucky to finish before Independence Day. (But my very ambitious goal for the summer: five more books. Of modest size.)

  2. @Billy: YES! Ignore them. The author interviews can really be cool but only if they offer something more than the afterword that occurred some 2 pages before the interview. This one did not. Thanks for the words of encouragement. And good luck with your summer goal. Do you know what these 5 books shall be? Maybe I could read along with one of them. By the way, have you read the new John Green - I think the title is Will Grayson, Will Grayson? I've heard good things.

  3. I have a shelf of some dozen unread books. Here's the ones I can recall from the top o' me noggin:
    (1) A Wedding In December;
    (2) Mohawk;
    (3) The Passage;
    (4) Getting Things Done (side reading);
    (5) The Girl With The Tattoo That Everyone Else Seems To Know About But Me;
    (6) Freedomland.

    There's others, and I'm not just forgetting about them 'cuz I'm not as interested in 'em. I just blanking. I blame "lunch" at Tremont. Oh yeah. 1984, but that's more out of professional obligation than sincere interest.

    Point is, if you picked a book, and gave me a few weeks' head start, we might finish at approximately the same time ;-)

  4. I just hated this book. Felt she had a better feel for animals than people. Gruen saves all her best efforts for the animals themselves and consequently, Rosie the elephant is the best drawn player in the drama. This may have been easier to applaud had not I read in an interview with the author that most of the charming animal tales were directly lifted from circus archives. The trials of the democratic book group choices! :)

  5. @Frances: Some books get better with time away from them; others, alas, do not. This one is not growing on me in its absence.

    @Billy: I'm going to come up with something cool to do as a readalong at the beginning of August. Maybe we'll even do 1984 and some companion piece. That would at least give you some other motivation than the looming Reading Day to get it done, right?

  6. It is so reassuring to come across another blogger who was as underwhelmed by Water for Elephants as I was. There were some good bits of description regarding the circus, but it all gets thrown over in favor of a love story I could not buy into.

  7. Christy - Thanks for stopping by the blog. It is reassuring when someone else out there agrees with your unpopular opinion of a popular work. I am interested to see how the movie does. I feel pretty confident it will be wildly successful. I just learned today it is being at least partially filmed in my city!

  8. Very cool. I think there's a lot of potential crossover between circus culture and hobo/folk singer experience of the 1930s (or today, probably). There's a program on PBS I started watching about the Big Apple Circus; really interesting stories about people who've clearly suffered all kinds of damage but have, some of them anyway, created a strange, loving community around a traveling circus. It's a damn complicated world.