On Friday night my book group took up Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, a foray into the hyper-common, a book so often selected by book clubs that it has become cliche as a choice. I sound really excited about this so far, don't I? The idea of a circus book held no appeal for me as my mind generated a slideshow featuring the freakiest of the freak show, piles of animal dung, and an array of circus culinary delights that only a good stomach pump could forever expunge from your system. But book clubs are a democracy for the most part, and I feel that I influence our decisions too often so I clammed up and read. Love book club and do not want to be a pill.
The protagonist, Jacob, is days away from graduating from Cornell with a veterinary medicine degree after which he will join his father in the family vet practice. However, as he prepares to sit for final exams, he learns that his parents have been tragically killed in an auto accident, and he is left penniless as they have mortgaged their assets to fund his education. Overwhelmed, he flees from his exams, hops a train and joins the circus where they promptly adopt him as vet. This is no Ringling outfit though. It is a Depression era, third rate circus where Jacob will remain for lack of another direction and for the love of a performer married to the paranoid schizophrenic animal manager.
This book was well researched and features great photos of the era mostly from the Ringling Brothers archives. The circus vernacular is well-represented, and the historical insights are often intriguing. The prose is, as I saw described elsewhere, "serviceable" and moves along at a very fast clip. However, the human characters are poorly drawn, one-dimensional in some cases. Gruen saves all her best efforts for the animals themselves and consequently, Rosie the elephant is the best drawn player in the drama. This may have been easier to applaud had not I read in an interview with the author that most of the charming animal tales were directly lifted from circus archives. My friend, Marcy astutely pointed out that she still had to weave these pieces into the story and skillfully did so as evidenced by the high degree of "readability" here. OK. I am still somewhat with the text but then the contrived ending blew it for me. The one thing I did appreciate was the way the ending was revealed at the beginning, and then re-arriving at that point for the finale, the reader realizes that their assumptions have been skillfully challenged.
I love animals but have not had an easy go of it lately with animal books including this one and Edgar Sawtelle (don't even get me started). Maybe Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture was so beautiful to me that other things have just not compared since? Something else?