Water for Elephants was the book pick of the month at my local library’s book club. Water for Elephants is a historical fiction book set in a circus during the early 1930s with a romantic plot and conflict. The story follows a young man about to graduate from veterinary school when both his parents are killed in an automobile accident. Jacob is so distraught over his parent’s death that he leaves the school before taking his final exams and starts hitching rides on trains. Jacob finds himself on a circus train that travels all around the country performing but he must earn his stay in the circus. After some difficulties, he is able to join the circus as the circus’ veterinarian, to look after all the exotic animals. When he falls for a married woman, Marlena, and when the circus gets an elephant in the show, Jacob must navigate the odd social complexities of the circus.
This book wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed it for the most part. Sara Gruen writes at a very even pace and it is probably one of the better-paced books I’ve ever read. Her prose is not overly wrought with description nor is the dialogue languorous, it is very conversational, and realistic in approach. You can tell Gruen did her research when it comes to circuses because the historical aspect and setting of this book is the highlight. You really get a feeling of the destituteness that these different circus performers and workers are going through because of the Great Depression. The way the circus was set up and described gave the reader a strong sense of immersion because it was so heavily detailed and researched. The descriptions of the animals were fantastic and the elephant, Rosie, steals the show.
My main issue with this book was that the plotline was rather thin. Once you got past the fabulous setting, it is a typical young boy falls in love with a married woman, who is married to a jerk already, story. These type of stories are so overdone in all mediums of entertainment and I find them to be extremely shallow in originality. I just really don’t like the idea that these type of books portray about marriage and bad marriages. Another thing that annoyed me was how often the reader was reminded of Jacob’s virginity and his desire(passion) to have sex. It just seemed like an unneeded thing to be reminded of so often and his “desire” for Marlena was immature. I believe that men don’t constantly walk around desiring every woman they see, especially if that woman is married. Jacob is characterized as a guy that just can’t control his “passion,” give me a break, this trope needs to die in a fire.
The parts of the story that really surprised me were the parts that described Jacob in a nursing home as an elderly man. Most of this story is Jacob remembering his circus days because the circus is visiting nearby the nursing home Jacob is staying at. I found these scenes to be highly engrossing because they seemed more honest than the regular narrative. Because we are looking back from Jacob’s perspective I think his past was much more whitewashed optimistically than it really was. Jacob as a cranky old man was much different than he was as a kid.
Overall I think that the setting just really worked for me. I will have to read more circus-inspired stories. Where the romance plotline wasn’t the greatest thing for me, I was distracted by the very even pacing, that made me enjoy the story much more than I would had. I think that if you enjoy romantic sub-plots in your historical fiction, you’ll really enjoy Water for Elephants. If you, like myself, don’t really care for romance with a married conflict, then maybe move along, or grab it from the library. Be warned there is a lot of animal abuse in this book.
13/25 Possible Score
Plot – 2(OK)
Characters – 2(OK)
Setting – 4(Strong)
Writing – 3(Good)
Heart & Mind – 2(OK)