Water for Elephants By Sara Gruen
by Luan Bui
(Rockville, MD, USA)
Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is a fictional but remarkable tale of a man’s adventure with a depression era circus.
The novel is about Jacob Jankowski, a senior student at Cornell who is aspiring to become a veterinarian like his father. Jacob’s life takes a tragic turn when his parents are brutally killed in a car accident. This leads to a series of heartbreaking events that pushes Jacob in a spiraling depression.
One fateful night, emotionally deviant and not of sound mind, Jacob jumps onto a moving train. The train is owned by the Benzini Bros Most Spectacular Show on Earth and as destiny would have it; this circus is in need of a professional in veterinarian science. What follows is a series of memorable events constructed through extensive research of circus life during this era and Guen’s own imagination. Water for Elephants presents a tale of intriguing contradictions where the circus life is presented as both glamorous and repulsive but stumbles with an outrageous love story.
I can’t go into anymore details without spoiling the story. So if you have any interest in reading this book, STOP READING THIS REVIEW. If you read my summary and already have an interest in reading this book, do so. Water for Elephants is an enjoyable quick read that is not going to stop the world from spinning or elevate people to an existence of enlightenment. It is a well research novel and has a little bit of everything: mystery, intrigue, romance, and one elephant. It’s also decent for discussion and reading groups. The back of the book contains questions that people can discuss about, and some even posted their response on youtube. Plus, there’s a chance you might like it more then I did. The entire front and back covers, and first few pages are filled with accolades from more prestigious critics like author Stephan King and the Washington Post. You have been warned, for the rest of this review I’m just going to ramble about how much I hated this book.
The Love story sucks. Basically, Jacob falls in love with a woman name Marlena who is already married to a guy name August. Marlena is described as a kind and gentle person. Jacob and Marlena definitely develop a silent understanding for each other in their early encounters. Yet they can’t be together because she’s married, and she won’t start an affair because their happiness can not be built on the misery of others so they don’t. Then they do because it turns out that August is an abusive jerk. But he’s not a jerk because he’s really a victim of paranoid schizophrenia. Such a tragic character flaw, certainly he deserves some sympathy, it’s not like he honestly wants to hurt anybody. At the very least someone should take him to a hospital. They don’t, and they keep acting like he’s in full control of his own actions and should have known better then to assault his wife that one time.
Don't get me wrong, I hate August and he is definitely the major villain with no redeemable quality, but I just happen to also have sympathy for the mentally handicap. Introducing the notion that August is mentally ill only makes me feel conflicted about his character, but then he is continued to be portrayed as a single dimensional character even though I can clearly see the possibility of adding some thought provoking depth to this villain. Its a missed opportunity.
Anyways at the climax of the story, Jacob and Marlena finally decide to be together because they were always in love since at first sight. Also, August had just beaten the snot out of the both of them. Marlene gets a divorce, but August is still fighting to reclaim Marlena. At this point, August is described as becoming even more emotionally unstable and violent. The resulting tension and drama leads to some memorable scenes as the novel barrel rolls into the conclusion. In the end, Marlena comes to the realization that August would never allow Jacob and her to be together and commits the sin of killing August for the sake of true love. Ha! Just kidding, that ending would be too cheesy, actually the elephant kills August.
So basically, the romance story is a love triangle with a clear cut good guy and a clear cut bad guy where the good guys win.
Water for Elephants presents a tale of intriguing contradictions of circus life but stumbles with a poorly executed love story. Unfortunately, the novel, which is about a circus whose goal is to create the illusion of grandeur in spite of the grime reality everyone lives in, stops trying to subvert the readers' expectation and takes refuge in a simplistic love story. The Gruen does create some deception in the prologue, but the ending ruins it by turning the entire prologue into a red herring instead of a source of ambiguity. The plot became strangely pedestrian after such an intriguing opening. No longer a unpredictable spectacle as first hinted, it turns into a soap opera.
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