Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Review: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
4 stars

Reasons for reading: lots of people I know loved it; Historical Fiction for Triple 8 Challenge; Alex Award-winner for the Book Awards Challenge

Description: "Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.
Jacob was there because his luck had run out—orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive "ship of fools." It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act—in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival."

My thoughts: At first I wasn't 100% sold on this book, I wasn't sure I liked the alternating past and future chapters and I'm not really a circus person. But it came together at the end thanks to some literary sleight of hand from the beginning and the actual ending itself. That sent it right up to 4 stars and I could see why my friends enjoyed it so much.

Gruen clearly really researched circus life and I was really pleased to discover in her author's note that some of the incidents were inspired by real circus elephants. I loved her opening quote from Horton Hears a Who, "I meant what I said, and I said what I elephant's faithful - one hundred percent!" Rosie the elephant is as much a character as any of the human beings. The old photos at the beginning of each chapter were a nice touch. The brutality of circus life was quite shocking in some parts and the reality of life during the Depression came across clearly.

I thought she did a good job of writing from an elderly man's point of view and there were some really sad but well-done moments that demonstrated what it's like to get old, particularly that you still feel like yourself, but your body has changed almost beyond recognition and people don't treat you like an adult any more.

An interesting book with a great ending, and an elephant!


Unknown said...

I listened to the audio book version of this book, and I really enjoyed it during my commutes to and from work. I missed the pictures at each chapter since I was listening to it, but I'd highly recommend it if someone is looking for a good audio book to take on a trip.

raidergirl3 said...

Wasn't it a great ending? 'Literary sleight of hand'- what a great phrase, and it's true. I went scurrying back to the intro at the end to reread the beginning. The tricks our eyes will play on us.
The pictures really added to the story too.

tinylittlelibrarian said...

Jill - I'm sure it was good even without the photos. I think maybe I need to start listening to audiobooks, it seems like a good reader can add a whole new dimension.

Raidergirl - Thanks! :) And yep, I went scurrying back myself.

Julie said...

I loved the ending of this book. It was wonderful. It was one of my favorite reads for 2008.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this book when I read it a couple years ago and thought the ending with the elder Jacob was very cute!

tinylittlelibrarian said...

Stephanie - Me, too! I figured it would probably end with him just dying, so I was even happier to be surprised with the ending.