Sunday, May 6, 2007

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

Well, it had to happen eventually. Reading as much as I have been lately, I was bound to run into a book that was a disappointment, and Water for Elephants is it. I guess spending several weeks in the New York Times bestseller list, being talks for a movie, and being selected by various book clubs is no guarantee of quality.

Water for Elephants has a premise that I found quite interesting. Jacob Jankowski, a young man studying at Cornell to be a veterinarian, has his world turned upside down his his parents are killed in an automobile accident. Finding himself penniless, he quits school and joins a traveling circus in the Depression-era 1930s. Once in the circus, he meets all manner of madcap characters, from the ruthless uncle Al, to the half-crazy animal trainer August, to his beautiful wife Marlena, and all kinds of kooky freaks and weirdos in between. It's told from the viewpoint of Jacob, now ninety (or ninety-three), who lives in a nursing home and lives off his old memories. Sounded interesting to me, and, in fact, the first half of the book is quite riveting with its details on the practices, slang, and folklore of the traveling circus. Also, Sara Gruen is quite attractive for an author. No offense, Danielle Steele.

Unfortunately, once the main storyline begins, the book heads steadily downhill. It devolves from interesting period piece to bland soap opera fairly quickly, with one implausible action building upon another until the story reaches a climax that manages to be both unbelievable and predictable, quite a feat. And, actually, the ending to the elder Jacob's story is no more believable or satisfying. Another problem, one that doesn't become clear until the characters are all introduced, is that they all sound pretty much the same. It takes some special gift to make a ruthless ringmaster, a schizophrenic, a stripper, and a bitter dwarf sounds identical, but Gruen pulls it off with aplomb.

It's not to say that I hated the book. As I mentioned, the circus stuff was all pretty interesting, and I think there's probably a great book to be written on the topic. Unfortunately, Water for Elephants isn't it.


Carlton said...

Just admit hate elephants.

Christopher said...