Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

"I meant what I said, and I said what I meant...
An elephant's faithful -- one hundred percent!"
--Theodore Seuss Geisel, Horton Hatches the Egg

In this book, an elephant kills the bad guy. On purpose. Sound far-fetched? I thought so too, even after I was done reading.

Water for Elephants begins with a prologue that tells the story of a murder. Readers don't know the who or the why, but have a pretty good idea of whodunnit. And they're wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. After the enticing prologue, the book slows down considerably as we are introduced to Jacob, the narrator who is "either ninety, or ninety-three" and lives in a rest home. The arrival of a circus in town stirs Jacob's memories, and the story progresses as a series of flashbacks.

The year is 1931, and young Jacob is just finishing up his veterinary degree at Cornell when he receives word both that his parents have been killed in a car accident and that he is now without home, money or prospects for the future. So he does what any logical twenty-two year old would do and runs away, leaving in the middle of finals and neglecting to collect his degree. He hops a train (is it bad that all I could think of while reading this part was John Hodgman's account of the hobo wars?) that happens to be carrying none other than The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

As the story progresses, young Jacob is welcomed to the circus world, if a little begrudgingly, as the veterinarian. He busies himself with the menagerie of exotic animals and steals looks at the pretty circus performer Marlena, who works with the horses on stage. Marlena is married to a real class act, the moody and abusive August, who also happens to be head of the equestrian program for the circus.

The story picks up when the circus acquires an elephant who appears clever but won't listen to a word her trainer says. The elephant, named Rosie, and Jacob share a special bond from their earliest meeting, and Jacob is the only one at the circus that recognizes Rosie's sensitivity and intelligence. The poor creature undergoes quite a bit of abuse at the hands of the apoplectic August before Jacob realizes that she only understands Polish commands.

The plot thickens when August picks a fight with Jacob and Marlena over their friendship, and commences to give them both a beating. Marlena decides to leave August once and for all, and she and Jacob begin to have an affair. August tries to win his wife back by force, and Jacob begins to craft a getaway plan for them both. It comes too late for his unlucky friends, who are murdered in a plot meant for Jacob himself. The very next day, as Jacob plans his and Marlena's escape, a stampede breaks out in the big top. In the ensuing chaos (which was the focus of the prologue and is repeated at the end of the book, but more clearly) we finally learn that it was not Marlena who kills August after all. The maniacal trainer had a much larger enemy to contend with.

Jacob and Marlena live happily ever (and so does Rosie the elephant). At book's end, Jacob, now ninety, or ninety-three, finds himself the focus of a modern-day circus manager's attention. This ending is at once fitting and heartwarming.

I quite enjoyed reading this book, all the way up until the ending, which I found a little beyond the realm of my imagination. For a work of historical fiction, the details of August's violent end seem a bit sketchy. It was a quick read, and for the most part I could sympathize with Jacob, the book's clear protagonist. It was only at the end, when the elderly Jacob frets more about his lie of omission (never telling Marlena that her first husband was killed by their pet elephant) than about the fact that his two best friends essentially died in his place. Walter, a circus dwarf, befriends Jacob when the two are forced to share living quarters on the train. Camel is a roustabout, a hobo working for the circus who falls ill and is cared for by Walter and Jacob. Both suffer the wrath of the general manager's henchmen, who raid their living quarters while Jacob is out.

It bothered me that beyond a paragraph or two when it happens, Jacob-as-narrator never returns to the subject of his friends. That he feels guiltier about keeping an elephant's secret was off-putting to me and made me like him a bit less.

I'm aware that this review has degenerated to the point of a middle school book report (but possibly worse, since Mrs. Oldham frowned on summarization). My only excuse is that it's getting late and while I enjoyed this book, it didn't really move me.


Nathan said...

Why did I think this book was about autism?

Nihil Novum said...

This book was really disappointing. I read it last year, thinking the premise was interesting. About midway through, I realized the elephant trainer, the midget, the freaks and the protagonists are sounded exactly the same.

I still think the circus stuff was pretty cool, but the complete lack of distinguishable characters and the bland writing killed it for me.

Christopher said...

You think everything is about autism.