Book reviews

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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen


I have a confession to make. I nearly didn’t read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen because I watched the first Twilight movie and hated it. Detested it completely. After seeing Twilight I was furious with Honey-Bunny, because she loves Twilight – the books and the movies, and insisted I would too, but I didn’t and I knew I would never get back the 122 minutes I spent in the movie theatre looking at Robert Pattinson’s hair. So, seeing his name at the top of my copy of Water for Elephants put me off reading the book.

Obviously none of this was Sara Gruen’s fault. I take full responsibility for my own probably biased opinion, which came about because of my own low tolerance for zombie, werewolf-type stories, unless Stephen King is telling the story.

Once I got over my Twilight-inspired dislike of the cover, I read Water for Elephants very quickly, over a weekend. I would have read it quicker except that I have a family who need feeding and some attention, and a house that needs cleaning. Oh well.

Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattison in the movie) is the character telling this story. Jacob is in his nineties and has forgotten exactly how old he is. I think forgetting your weight would be better, but forgetting your age is good too, can’t wait. Jacob lives in a nursing home where he objects to being treated like a child, fed mush and humoured and patronised by the staff and his family. When Jacob calls out another resident for telling a lie about carrying water for elephants at a circus, Jacob starts telling the story of his youth, when during the 1930’s, he joined the Benzini Bros Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

Jacob was just about to sit his final exams to become a vet when his parents were killed in a road accident. Suffering from grief, he is unable to sit his final exams so he runs away to join the circus. Circuses in the Depression era are a very different thing to my previous circus-reading experiences, which admittedly were all Enid Blyton stories featuring the jovial Mr Galliano as the ringmaster.

Benzini Bros Most Spectacular Show on Earth was a cut throat business. The circus employed hundreds of workers, transporting the show from town to town across America by train. When there was no money, workers didn’t get paid. Men who complained or those who couldn’t work were brutally disposed of.

Surprisingly, the class system existed in the circus, with performers and workers living in completely separate worlds. As a vet for the circus, (despite not having sat his exams), Jacob straddled both sides of the system. Things get complicated in this story when Jacob falls in love with a married woman, Marlena, who performs in the circus with horses. Marlena, who is unhappily married to the cruel and abusive ringmaster of the circus, falls in love with Jacob too.

This story had me feeling on edge the whole way through. The times were hard and the circus was a rough and dangerous place. I liked Jacob and felt frightened for his safety, even though I knew from the very first chapter that he lives to be a very old man. The combination of Marlena’s husband and characters being red lighted (thrown from the moving train) was frightening.

I didn’t feel that Marlena’s character brought as much to the relationship as Jacob’s did, although I could see why Jacob fell in love with her. Beautiful – tick, star of the show – tick, pink tights – tick. But as a character, Marlena lacked charm and as a romance, the story is a bit flat. Jacob’s enduring attachment to Rosie the elephant was more believable than his truly loving Marlena.

I enjoyed the story for the historical descriptions of what circus life was really like, (apparently Hurrah for the Circus is not a realistic depiction), and the stories about Rosie, as after reading Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult I am more interested in elephants than I ever thought possible.

I didn’t see the twist in the tale coming, although I should have, because there are plenty of clues. This isn’t a great book, but it is a fast, reasonably enjoyable read. I believe the Water for Elephants movie was a smash hit. Maybe Honey-Bunny and I could watch Water for Elephants together some time, since I pinched (borrowed without her knowing) this book from her.


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