A.J.'s Reviews > Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
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's review
Jul 08, 2008

did not like it
bookshelves: fiction
Read from April 08 to 16, 2011

As I write, Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants has 29,237 reviews. That's not ratings. Reviews. As a point of comparison, Hamlet, one of the greatest achievements of language in human history, has a little over two thousand. The point is simple. People are reading the hell out of this book, and when that happens, something in me snaps. My reason flies away. I say to myself, "You don't really know anything about the book, but there has to be some reason everyone and their illiterate grandmother is reading this thing." The last time this exact situation happened to me was with Twilight, that soul-crushing nightmare from the Abyss. More on that in a second.

The novel in question here is fine fodder for one of those Form vs. Content discussions. A young man set to graduate with an ivy league veterinary degree loses his parents, but unlike Batman he decides to forego beating up criminals and hops a train instead. It happens to be a circus train. And it happens to be during the depression. Reading just such summaries, my black and shriveled heart rippled with small wisps of life. Could it be? Was I holding one of those books that are––dare I say it––magical?

Hell no.

A premise which oozed potential quickly revealed itself to be nothing more than garbage wrapped in trash. The dialogue was worthless, the characters poorly drawn, and a no point did the novel even approach the nostalgia-inducing authenticity one expects from period pieces like this. It lacked anything resembling a hint of profundity. All in all Sara Gruen's book turned out to be nothing more that your typical dollar store romance novel with better cover art (which I see in later editions has been besmirched with images of the gushy-corpse from Twilight).

I think my personal favorite aspect of the story was that the protagonist, which tradition tells us we're supposed to empathize with, sets his main quest as stealing the wife of a man we later learn has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. That's sort of like watching someone take a teddy bear from a Down Syndrome child and then being asked to share your Skittles with him. Are you serious? The 'antagonist' is disabled. He's ill. Even if he does descend into fits of violence from time to time, it's not his fault. He needs serious psychological help, and instead Jacob plots to take his wife, kick his dog, drink his milkshake, and sick his war elephant on him. What an asshole.

Water for Elephants is scientific proof of why you cannot trust anything that happens with readership trends. None of us is a stupid as all of us. If wooden characters in an uncomfortably bland setting peppered with laughably anachronistic dialogue can outpace the Prince of Denmark, pack your shit, we might as well call it quits.

One star is probably harsh, and I'm guessing the Colonel Hans Landa movie coming out this month will be a hell of a lot better, but I was mortified by how much of a letdown this book was. I don't even know why, not knowing what was in it beforehand. It's that Twilight effect, immortalized in H. L. Mencken's timeless observation: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

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Reading Progress

50.0% "I'm still waiting for the reason the book sold half a bajillion copies. It's pretty good as far as a story goes, but so far it's kind of...blah...for my unfounded expectations."
04/14/2016 marked as: read

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