Book Journal: Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants: A Novel
By  Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants is a historical novel that delves into the experiences of a man during the elderly and youthful stages of his life. The central action of the novel takes place in a current-day nursing home and in a Depression-era circus, respectively.  As a young man, Jacob runs away and joins a circus as a veterinarian to the exotic animals.  He befriends and champions many disenfranchised characters, both animal and human, as he struggles with personal loss and star-crossed love.

Some themes at play within the novel:  poverty, working class struggles, unexpected friendship, loss of loved ones, marital violence, mental illness, animal cruelty, and bigotry  (to name a few).

Some Thoughts (Spoiler-ish, fair warning):
I was enamored with the book by the second chapter. Elderly Jacob won my heart right away; he is so witty and charismatic, and he is also quite the sage. His musings on age and physical deterioration touched me deeply. Gruen does a stellar job of getting the reader to understand and sympathize with the trials that elderly people go through in an assisted living/nursing home environment. Jacob fights to maintain his own mental clarity, and he asks for nothing more than his own dignity and some human decency from the detached and jaded nurses. Jacob begins to think of Rosemary as his “angel”, and I couldn’t help but view her in the same light. She is both empathetic towards Jacob’s suffering and sensitive of his pride. The character of Rosemary really defines what a good nurse in elderly care should be—firm in her own stance, but gentle with her patients. 

My main complaint with the novel is Marlena, the “heroine” and Jacob’s love interest. I think Gruen’s characterization of Marlena is poorly shaped. We are told through Jacob that she is beautiful, a talented performer, and has an intuitive understanding of her animals. She doesn’t get very much dialogue to win me over with her personality. When she does talk, she is saying either “No, I can’t, I’m married!” or “No, you can’t, they’re my animals!”   After a while, I stopped caring about her or her destructive marriage to August. She is constantly described as having a strained expression or tapping her feet nervously time and time again (must be Gruen’s authorial tic?). I don’t see anything more to her than good looks and a talent for performing—which makes for a flat character. She is uncommunicative, weak, and tiresome. Honestly, I liked Barbara “the cooch girl” more than Marlena. It’s a shame, because Jacob’s obsession with her takes up much of the book.

Walter, or Kinko, is a favorite of mine. His loneliness is palpable. His love for his Queenie is so sweet and touching and terribly sad all at the same time. When he thought he lost her, my heart actually ached for him. Walter’s character helped open my eyes to the cruelty little people faced through the ages and still face today. Walter’s options are very limited; even his position in the circus is precarious.  His tragic end reflects his tragic life. Though he is often bitter and resentful through much of the book, when he opens up to Jacob and begins to nurse Camel, I could see a very endearing side to a person who deals with nothing but hate and malice from others in his life. He is one character Gruen wrote extraordinarily well. His mortifying “eight-pager” scene sent me into a fit of guilty giggles, though I think that was the point, heh.

There were many surprisingly dark and violent ins and outs of the circus biz at the height of its “glamour” and popularity.  Overall, Gruen paces the novel well, which is paramount in my enjoyment of a book, and the ending is very satisfying and full of redemption. I should add that I simply fell in love with the clever and mischievous Rosie, and not just because she is my namesake. I am animal rights oriented, so this book is extremely hard to get through during the abuse scenes, but a book that evokes a strong feeling, whether good or bad, is a book worth recognizing.

Favorite Quotes:
“When you’re five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. I’m twenty-three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It’s a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I’m—you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you’re not. You’re thirty-five. And then you’re bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it’s decades before you admit it” (Gruen 5).

“Age is a terrible thief. Just when you’re getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse” (Gruen 12).

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Information about my copy for my own records:
Publication: First paperback edition, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, April 2007
Genre: Historical Fiction, Depression Era, Circus Lit.
ISBN-13: 978-1-56512-560-5

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