Nataliya's Reviews > Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen
bookshelves: 2012-reads, i-also-saw-the-film
I picked up Water for Elephants after seeing the movie. You know, the one with "that Twilight guy" - who for a change was allowed to smile. And to have other facial expressions besides "permanently constipated". The math is simple:
Drum roll: Rosie the elephant works better than Ex-Lax!
But on to the book now. In addition to Jacob Jankowski's "love affair" with Rosie the elephant (and a noticeably less sweet affair with Marlena-the-bland-chick) we get a parallel story of Jacob the old guy (who is ninety. Or ninety-three). The latter was the part of the book that I loved. It's a sad story of a cranky old guy in a nursing home who feels his mind and body falling apart but refuses to accept that, and realizes that life is beginning to pass him by. He reminded me of so many elderly patients that I have taken care of in the hospital. Sadness. This is why I did not mind the far-fetched happy ending - hey, old folks don't always have enough happiness in their lives, and they have earned it!
(a) Here is what I did NOT care for.
The young Jacob's story (the bulk of the book) left me rather indifferent. The premise and the beginning of the book were interesting, but the story started dragging about a third into the book. It became repetitive - August is charming, August is a villain, Marlena pouts, Rosie gets viciously beaten, Jake wants Marlena, Marlena wants Jake, Jake and Marlena can't have each other. Rinse and repeat. The story developments become more and more superficial and detached as the story progresses, as though the author ran out of steam and was finishing the book only because she was under contract to do so. Many characters are flat as well. Young Jacob is naive to the point of disbelief, and Marlena is very bland. Besides her beauty, there seems to be little reason for anyone to love her. Uncle Al is greedy and evil. The only twist in the story ((view spoiler)[It wasn't Marlena who killed August! It was Rosie! (hide spoiler)]) felt anticlimactic since by that point I found it hard to care. Oh, and I don't think it would have been too difficult to include a few footnotes with translation of Polish phrases. I can read some Polish, so it was not an issue for me, but why not oblige a reader who does not understand Polish?
(b) Here is what I thought was nicely done.
I did love the characterization of August. The oscillation between delightfully charming and batshit crazy was portrayed very well. We can argue whether this portrayal vilifies mental illness ((view spoiler)[August is revealed to have paranoid schizophrenia (hide spoiler)]), but from my experience with people with similar condition it is shown quite close to the truth, unpleasant as the truth may be. I felt bad for August in the end, and I think it's the feeling the author was going for - some sympathy for the "villain".
I loved the descriptions of circus life during the Great Depression. The poverty, the brutality, the beauty, the hard work - all was shown very well. Unfortunately, these elements are much better developed in the first part of the book than the second.
Overall, I though the book was an uneven but mostly enjoyable read. It did not change my life in any way, but it was not a waste of time either. Nice story of circus life interspersed with bland romance, with a touching parallel story of trying to reclaim one's identity in the aging body and mind.
3 stars is the verdict.