Review: ‘Water For Elephants’ by Sara Gruen

April 5, 2017 Review 0

The framing story here is that of an old man looking back on his life with a third-rate circus in the thirties. Is it a romance? An action story? Making a point about circuses? Not a clue. It was an easy read, and I was never tempted to abandon it, but frankly I have no idea what to make of it. Parts of it were wonderful, parts were ho-hum and a few parts were downright stupid, a real curate’s egg of a book.

Let’s start with the good bits, which was basically everything involving elderly Jacob (who’s 90 or possibly 93) in the care home. The descriptions of the other residents brought them to vivid life, Jacob himself was utterly believable as a curmudgeonly old man falling out with another the same, and the daily frustrations of age and an institutionalised existence were filled with pathos.

The ho-hum bits were most of the middle. Circus life ought to be filled with colour and movement and life, but somehow it all faded to nondescript lifelessness. The early parts, where Jacob leaves his comfortable middle-class existence behind and joins the circus, working his way swiftly from hired low-paid muscle to circus vet, had the air of an author showing off her research. We get a quick guided tour around some of the seedier elements – there’s a graphic description of what goes on in the stripper’s tent, for instance, which has no particular relevance to the plot.

Once we get past the exposition phase and our hero falls for the wife of the animal director, the action hots up and veers off into stupid. I lost track of the number of times the hero was beaten up, only to be back to normal almost instantly. In one scene, he’s beaten so badly that he ends up concussed, but he then does the whole running-along-the-top-of-the-moving-train thing, with a knife in his mouth. And then back again. The whole romance is basically unbelievable. What did he see in her? I suppose she was hot in pink sequins, but she didn’t seem to have much between the ears (but to be fair, nor did he).

There were some more complex characters, like Walter the dwarf, who would have made a more interesting hero, frankly. But the star of the book was Rosie the elephant, who had more character than most of the humans. Poor Rosie suffers a lot, in fact a number of the animals suffer, for one reason or another, but the humans don’t do much better. At one end of the circus train, the owner and his acolytes live in luxury, with the best food and plenty of booze (the book is set in the prohibition era), and are able to go to expensive nightclubs. At the other end, the grunts who do all the work don’t get paid at all, and get tossed off the (moving) train whenever they outlive their usefulness.

And then we come to the end. Both the thirties-era ending and the present-day ending were beyond silly, but everything got tied up with a neat little bow, I suppose. The unevenness of the two eras and the stupid endings keep it to no more than three stars.

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