Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen

“The thought has cheered me, and I'd like to hang onto that. Must protect my little pockets of happiness.”

“My father felt it was his duty to continue to treat animals long after he stopped getting paid. He couldn't stand by and watch a horse colic or a cow labor with a breech calf even though it meant personal ruin. The parallel is undeniable. There is no question I am the only thing standing between these animals and the business practices of August and Uncle Al, and what my father would do - what my father would want me to do - is look after them, and I am filled with that absolute and unwavering conviction. No matter what I did last night, I cannot leave these animals. I am their shepherd, their protector. And it's more than a duty. It's a covenant with my father.” 

I picked Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen to read especially in light of the upcoming National Novel Writing Month in November - this is the single most successful NaNoWriMo novel, after all. The book had been in my tbr-list way too long, probably even before the movie came out, so it's nice to finally be able to check it off my list. The illusion of productivity and all the such.

The novel tells the story of Jacob, both 23 and 93, a circus veterinarian and an old man with much of nothing but memories. At the beginning, I found the older Jacob's story jarring and desperate, horrifying in the all too real truth of life in a nursing home. I didn't enjoy it, but it's probably part of the book's charm - Jacob at 93 only comes truly alive as he tells the story about himself at 23.

The past is both extravagant and crude. The show Jacob joins - the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth - is mostly illusion, and the living conditions of the workers are not suitable for living. At the beginning, Jacob is believed to be a mere runaway that wouldn't last a month with the circus, but he gets to prove his worth when they learn of the advantages of his almost Ivy League degree and Polish heritage. He still has to constantly fight for his place, and nothing becomes easier after he falls in love with Marlena, who is already married to the equestrian director.

There are bits and pieces I absolutely love about the book, like the historical accuracy. Circus novels are great and all, but it's rare to see them done so well, with such attention to detail that I had to make sure the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth isn't an actual circus (spoiler: it's not, but Ringling, also mentioned, is). I think the beauty of historic novels should be exactly this; learning about things like The Disaster March (really interesting, look it up if you haven't heard of it!) and Jamaica Ginger  in a context one can't imagine without proper research. If I ever feel the need to strike a conversation about USA during the 1930s, I'm now a bit more educated.

Of course, animals are close to my heart, so the theme was easy to accept. My mother is a vet and you just can't grow up on a farm without a profound love for any and all little and not-so-little creatures. I saw my mother in Marlena's love for the horses and Jacob's worry over them, and it's easy to fall into the story when you feel that way about the characters. The second quote I picked up from the book is a bit longer than ideal, but I think it addresses this point extremely well. I'd find it extremely interesting to hear how someone else felt about this aspect of the novel, but I read it as a vet's daughter before anything else.

When it comes to the characters, I don't have many complaints. Marlena is mostly a prize rather than a person, mostly characterised through the love of animals she shares with Jacob. This is probably because of the time portrayed rather than literary oversight. Jacob himself is vibrant and passionate, and even though a lot changes in 70 years, he's still recognisable in the old, bitter man he becomes. My absolute favourite was Kinko, who's needlessly rude to Jacob at the beginning but shows admirable character growth during the story. He also has a Jack Russel terrier, and you can't really go wrong with that.

What do I have complaints about? Perhaps I found the romance a bit predictable at times, but this is mostly in hindsight. During the read, I was completely captivated by the intensity of Jacob's feelings for Marlena and the way everything just got kind of messed up as the story progressed. Some of the word choices in the book made me actually cringe in their clichéness. Perhaps it was intentional at times - of course the ringleader would feel that the show must go on, but I'm not really going to accept that excuse because it happened once too often. It wasn't an experience-ruining thing, just something I could definitely live without. 

This time (compare to the last book review I wrote earlier this month *shudders*) the ending made the story all the better. It wrapped up nicely and gave me warm feelings I'm still bathing in now, as I think back to the whole book that I spent some ten days slowly working my way through. It was such a nice ending, and I'm just really happy with it. Ugh, feelings.

I think it's important to mention here that I read this as an audiobook (sue me, I walk a lot to campus and back) and the readers - David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones, I checked it to make them justice - do an absolutely fantastic job. They really, truly capture the essence of the characters they portray, and listening to them makes it that much better. If there's ever a book you should listen to rather than read yourself, it's this one. Just trust me.

All in all, Water for Elephants was what I expected - a great read, a historical novel, a circus novel, a love story. It was worth the time it spent on my tbr-list, but I'm also glad I didn't read it before this. I probably understand it a bit better now than I would have at twelve, after all.

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