While I’m not surprised that this book landed on the bestseller list, I remain baffeld as to how this began life as a NaNoWriMo book, because WATER FOR ELEPHANTS has so many circus-specific and depression-era specific details that it seemed like the kind of book where you’d have to spend a year researching it before you even set the scene. Nevertheless, I was given high hopes for this book which were not dashed.
I listened to this as an audiobook, and my first impression was that I was being cheaply manipulated. The opening scene is with Jakob in a nursing home, and he’s in a sad, pathetic state. The second scene is Jakob at Cornell, right before his final exams for his Vet degree, and he’s in a sad state too when he receives the bad news which will change the course of his life. Everything seemed like a stereotype. Even the circus train seemed like a stereotype, a cartoon version of what hobos and circus folk were like in the depression.
But as I went on, my skepticism turned to admiration. Gruen added details of the circus I had never thought about, such as where the performers slept vs where the roustabouts slept. And yes, the reader (or listener, in my case) is emotionally manipulated, but Gruen does it masterfully. Every scene has a mystery. Jakob is always motivated by desire, and doesn’t lose track of it. Their plot arcs are neatly paralleled. The younger Jakob almost loses everything, and then gets it again. The elder Jakob stands to lose the thing he wants most, and then gets it for himself.
There were a few things I disliked about this novel. I got the impression from the original scene that Marlena killed August with a spike, and that Jakob had been with the Benzini brothers circus for 7 years up to that point. This kind of skewed my understanding of the rest of the novel. I disliked the elder Jakob scenes. Nursing homes are depressing, especially when the protagonist is a bit of an asshole who’s abusive to the long-suffering nurses. Jakob the younger is also self centered, and quite stupid. I know that sometimes he misunderstood things so that Gruen could have other characters explain it to him as exposition, but it happened so often that Jakob came off as clueless. I kept asking, really? This guy went to Cornell? Cause he’s still asking the answers to questions the rest of us figured out a long time ago. For example, I knew immediately who the lemonade thief was. Jakob doesn’t know how old he is, but he knows what years he was with the Benzini brothers circus, and he knows how old he was at that time? He either doesn’t own a calendar or forgot arithmetic.
But that brings me to what I liked about this book. Jakob may be a selfish prick who will do anything to be with the pretty girl he admires, no matter whose wife she is or who has to suffer and die from his actions. And I disliked his shortsightedness and selfishness and rudeness, but I never doubted that he was a real person. Only one scene in the novel, at the very end, struck me as false, and I’m willing to pretend it was magic realism and that Jakob had really had a stroke and this was a wish-fulfillment dream rather than a real scene whose lack of plausibility would tarnish what is otherwise a very solid novel.
Whether you like the characters or not, the compelling plot and fully detailed setting will draw you in and pull you along from beginning to end. I recommend this for people who like drama and romance, for people who like circuses, for people interested in the great depression. I also recommend this for PETA types, because the mistreatment of animals will get you into a righteous froth.