Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
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.