I received Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen as a gift earlier in the year. Unfortunately, my life being what it is, it sat for a while before I finally picked it up. I thought it would make a nice light camping read and, being a published NaNoWriMo novel, might inspire me to work extra hard on my own writing.
Unfortunately, it had rather the opposite effect. By which I mean that I spent the entirety of the first day camping reading it. I finished it quickly and read it again before the weekend was out.
At it’s heart, Water for Elephants is a love story. There are darker undertones, though, of desperation, hatred, abuse, and greed. It is a remembrance of things past, where perhaps the brighter spots are a little brighter and the darker spots a little darker than they might truly have been. It is a truly visual story that leaves a mark on the reader: superficial at first, but eventually a deeper statement of love and compassion.
The story starts with a death – a murder. The victim: a character that we feel no sympathy for and quickly learn to hate. The perpetrator? Well, that’s left a little bit ambiguous. The mystery of the opening is soon pushed by the wayside as we live the memories of Jacob Janowski, a ninety-three year old circus veterinarian. Alone and with nothing, young Jacob gives up his dream and inadvertently runs away with the circus. There, he falls in love with the equestrian star, Marlena, a love that he must hide from her cruel husband. But things grow even more complicated when the elephant Rosie joins the menagerie and Jacob finds himself trying to protect his two loves from the cruel force that seems intent on dooming them both.
The setting of the novel is vibrant and alive – it’s clear Gruen did her research. It was that setting that really kept me engaged: I’ve heard that setting should be treated as a character, and this one definitely had a life of its own. From the Depression-damaged towns to the sleazy sideshow and “cooch tent” to the glamours of the performer cars and a speakeasy, I truly felt present in the moment.
The interactions between the characters were equally believable, if occasionally a little flat and predictable. The overall mystery of the murder and its fallout, as well as the side plots involving the injured Camel, older Jacob’s desire to visit the local circus, and the mystery that is Walter the clown kept me turning pages well into the time I should have been writing myself.
Water for Elephants is a thoughtful book, that I was able to read twice in quick succession and still glean more from it the second time. I think it might be one of those rare books that only improves on re-visiting, although I will have to read it again to be sure. I look forward to it.