Shelly's Reviews > Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
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Apr 10, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction
Read from September 22 to 26, 2011

When a book is hyped as much as this one was, I'm always leery of it. I mean no disrespect to others, but I am not a sheep, or a follower. I tend to like literary books that are more on the dark side, and that don't always have a happy ending. I realize this is sort of morbid, but it's what I like, because in my experience, real life isn't perfect, and I like my literary fiction to reflect this. If I'm going to reflect on big issues, such as infidelity, animal cruelty and life during the Great Depression, I want it to be realistic, almost scarily so. Please don't sugar coat it for me, give me the whole thing, because when I read literary fiction, I want a real life book, not a fantasy, no vampires, I don't even necessarily want a happily ever after. In fact, I tend to like books without a happy ending, told ya, kinda morbid. And usually by myself, because the general crowd doesn't seem to like to be depressed. One of my favorite books is House of Sand and Fog, and almost everyone dies in the end! This book, well, there were a few areas I felt were skimmed a bit, but honestly I didn't miss them too much, because to go into graphic detail of beating an animal, especially one as adorable and friendly as Rosie, I don't think I could have stomached witnessing it first hand. As it was, hearing about it second hand through other characters was bad enough to make me want to cry!

Right from the beginning, this book made me laugh and brought me into the fold. At the start of the story, Jacob is 90, or 93. Who the hell knows!

"I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.
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."


He goes on to describe how you lose track of the years, and why he's not sure if he's 90 or 93. I laughed out loud at work while listening to this part, because I'm 34, no, wait, yeah, 34! I frequently lose track of how old I am, and my husband teases me about this and how I'm going senile already. I love that he explains it's not because he's forgotten how old he is, he's just lost track!

"Actually, it's not so much that I've forgotten. It's more like I've stopped keeping track. We're past the millennium, that much I know - such a fuss and bother over nothing, all those young folks clucking with worry and buying canned food because somebody was too lazy to leave space for four digits instead of two - but that could have been last month or three years ago. And besides, what does it really matter? What's the difference between three weeks or three years or even three decades of mushy peas, tapioca, and Depends undergarments?"

The narration is done with 'old' Jacob and 'young' Jacob, two different narrators, and I love it. I'm not usually a big fan of first person narration, but in literary fiction it's easier to get away with, and the book is basically about Jacob's life, so for him to tell it is fine with me. A lot of complaints have been made about how this is or is not a romance. I think people are missing the point. This is Jacob's life. In people's lives, they often fall in love, and it's often a major earth shattering event (if not, I'd venture to say you're not doing it right), so the parts about Marlena are all told from Jacob's perspective, and we only get to know her through his eyes. Yes, she consumes his thoughts, but this isn't her story, we don't need to know everything about her, because Jacob is already in love with her, and that's all we need to know. There are complaints her personality was dull or she was a flat character. I disagree, but can see where they're coming from. If you compare her relationship to Jacob's with most of the other main characters, I think you'd find she was treated slightly better, as in fleshing her out. We don't find out much about August, except he's a paranoid schizophrenic and he's 12 years older than Marlena, and a sadistic asshole to boot. We hear bits and bits of everyone else and their life, but nothing is complete, because it's all what Jacob knows. As humans we don't get to know our fellow humans completely, not unless you spend a significant amount of time with them, so to get only bits and pieces of Marlena's or anyone else's life, well, it seems very realistic to me. As a result, it is difficult to see why Jacob loves her, but love is funny that way. He fell in love with her from the first moment they laid eyes on each other. That's realistic as well. But I did see her personality, the foot-tapping, the naivete, her love for animals, how because her parents refused to take her back because she not only ran off and married a circus performer, but a Jew at that, she had to struggle with dealing with August. Those things speak a lot about a person, even if it's not the complete picture, it's enough because Jacob loves her, and it's a clean and simple kind of love.

The backdrop for most of the story takes place on a circus train during the Great Depression, and the author did a wonderful job in describing every gritty detail. I definitely felt like I was there, and I wanted a shower, badly. It's such a complex and dynamic world, way more so than I would have thought. There's the cliques, where working men aren't allowed to socialize with the performers, the lingo, the shady dealings, lots of alcohol from Canada, and subsequent raids, the sheer volume of work it takes to set up a whole circus, and take it down just as fast, all in less than 24 hours often. The sad and probably realistic truth of red-lighting (I won't give it away, but it's horrific), the too-terrible conditions for the working men vs the comfort and luxury of the performers, the poor dear animals and all they have to go through! It really was an 'us vs. them' kind of mentality back then, and Jacob is one of the few who could go back and forth, showing both sides in startling contrast, another kudos to the author for that. I could really imagine myself, middle of summer, getting off the train, setting up in the heat, furious I haven't been paid in over 2 months, but unable to do anything else, waiting for the cook house to set up so I can get a meal. This was all in excellent detail. I love stories that pull you in that much!

The rest of the story takes place in a nursing home, present time, and again, great job on the gritty detail of what's probably true for most people in those situations. It almost makes me afraid to get old! I'm pretty sure there are great themes and excellent contrasts that can be over analyzed and described for those with more of a literary mind, I feel those things there, the things great authors strive to show in their work, and I don't care. I'm a normal person, and I get the book. I can't explain why I like it, or break down the structure of the book, and I don't want to. I like it the way it is. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time, both in my heart and in my head, as I think about what it was like to travel on a circus back then, whenever I see an elephant, I'll picture Rosie, who only understands Polish and likes to drink alcohol more than her humans do, and I'll remember what August did to her, and I'll remember what she did to August, and smile, thinking everything will come out right in the end, even if I don't know how, because it did for Rosie.

I'll admit the ending was unexpected, but for me the whole book was, as I was not expecting to like it very much. In fact, I was putting it off, fearing what I would find. What I found was a charming, gritty, lovable story about a man who loved a woman and an elephant. There were a few things I think could have been tweaked, but I'd just be nit-picking. The overall feel of the book was enjoyable, even if parts were hard to bear witness to. Don't go into this expecting a romance, and don't go into this not expecting a romance. Go into this with the doors and your heart wide open, and remember, this is Jacob's story, no one else's. And Jacob is one helluva man, I'm so glad I read this!
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Reading Progress

09/22 "Chapter 3 - I am loving this!" 5 comments
03/13 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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Tegan (The Rowdy Librarian) This is really good! I finished it in a day! :)


Shelly I have it in my TBR soon pile!


Tegan (The Rowdy Librarian) Yay! :) Her newest book, Ape House, is good too!


Shelly I am so loving this Tegan! Because of you, I moved up sooner, am listening to the audio, and it's awesome!


Tegan (The Rowdy Librarian) Yay!! I'm so glad! :D And glad I could help!! When I was reading it I couldn't put it down!!


Tegan (The Rowdy Librarian) Let me know what you think when you're done!!


Tegan (The Rowdy Librarian) Glad you loved it! :) I'm the same way with wanting morbid and dark literary fiction. Any other recommendations? And I'd be happy to share some of mine! :)


Shelly Have you read House of Sand and Fog? Really, it is sad. Also like A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton, a kid dies in that one, fair warning. In House of Sand and Fog, really a whole family dies, violently at the end!


Tegan (The Rowdy Librarian) I haven't, but it's on my list! :) Oooh, I'll have to add it. I'm sure I'll cry. But sometimes it's the best books that make you cry. Have you read any Carol Goodman? Her books are really good. I'd recommend The Lake of Dead Languages. It keeps you guessing and has all kinds of twist and turns.


Shelly I'll have to add it! Thanks Tegan!


Tegan (The Rowdy Librarian) No problem! Thank you for your recommendation, I added it as well!


Anne OK Great review on this one, Shell's. Loved Jacob's journey and glad I had the chance to go along.


message 13: by Karla (new) - added it

Karla Wow...awesome review. Everyone where I worked loved it too. After reading this I want to read it now.


message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

Thank you Shell's. Great review and it helped me to decide what to do.


Shelly AnneOK wrote: "Great review on this one, Shell's. Loved Jacob's journey and glad I had the chance to go along."

Thanks Anne - me too!


Shelly Karla wrote: "Wow...awesome review. Everyone where I worked loved it too. After reading this I want to read it now."

Thanks Karla - I hope you enjoy it!


Shelly Faithmarie wrote: "Thank you Shell's. Great review and it helped me to decide what to do."

Thanks Faithmarie - Are you going to give it a try?


message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

LOL...... I will watch the movie when it comes out. I really like to read light fluff mostly and very shallow books. I know thats not very literate of me but I just want to be entertained ....... shame on me I know. But that is just me. I ALWAYS need a HEA and romance...... heavy on the romance.


Shelly Faithmarie wrote: "LOL...... I will watch the movie when it comes out. I really like to read light fluff mostly and very shallow books. I know thats not very literate of me but I just want to be entertained ....... s..."

There's nothing to be ashamed of about that - it's a free country! I go in spurts, but mostly I like to read romances as well. Every once in a while I like to challenge myself, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. If you are what you eat, why can't you be you are what you read, and I'd like to have a HEA - heavy on the romance too!


message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

LOL Thanks for not judging me Shell's!!!!! Tee hee


Shelly Your welcome Faithmarie! Us romance-a-holics have to stick together!


message 22: by [deleted user] (new)

LOL Yeah!


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