There have been many novels set among the denizens of stage and screen, I don’t think there have been many set in the circus. I remember a movie or two such as the classic Trapeze, with Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, and Gina Lollobrigida, but not a single novel comes to mind. I’m sure more than one title has escaped my notice, but I think they’re few and far between. Water For Elephants is refreshing for that reason alone. But there’s plenty more to recommend it.
Gruen’s tale has a well-crafted plot that frames the action and keeps the reader involved and entertained, but not manipulated. It’s an honest, unpretentious piece of fresh writing.
The protagonist is a ninety- (or is it nine-three? He can’t quite recall. ) year- old rest home resident who alternately relates, dreams about, and recalls, his three-month stint with the Binzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth in the year 1931. Jacob Jankowski is one set of exams short of a Cornell veterinary degree when he receives words that his parents have been killed in an auto accident and that all their property is forfeit to the bank. Wandering, depressed, he ends up with the circus.
Thus begins a compelling and entertaining story about love, violence, and betrayal under the big top, which runs parallel to Jankowski the elder’s desire to see one last performance of a circus that has set up across the parking lot from his rest home.
Gruen’s prose is vivid. Take this snippet from her description of a crucial event in the story–a stampede of the Benzini animals:
A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact with a llama and knocked it flat–BOOM. The llama hit the ground, its neck and legs splayed like the five points of a star.
There’s plenty of sex, some of it serious, some of it comical, all of it good, healthy soft porn. The ending is one of those “of course” but (at least to me) unexpected ones. The kind I like the best. I was surprised without feeling manipulated.
Jacob the younger is too passive for most of the story. It’s not till past page two hundred that he finally takes some action on his own. Even his maiden seduction is initiated and carried out almost without his participation (You need to read the book to find out how that can be.) Once he finally gets going, he’s got gumption aplenty, but I would have liked more hints earlier that he was capable of what he finally accomplishes.
Also, I think there are some anachronisms:
I’m rooted to the spot where he left me.
He looks surprised. “You coming, or what?
He stares at me.
What? I say.
In 1931, I think the expression would have been “You coming or not?” and “What are you looking at?” or something similar. Both these “what” expressions seem pretty modern to me. There are others.
There’s nothing particularly deep or stylistically revolutionary about Water for Elephants, but it’s a well-told tale, a character- and action-driven book which delivers exactly what it promises with no pretensions and no fakery. Plus, the author’s notes about her research and the history of the circus are almost worth the price of admission by themselves. It will sure give you a new picture of Thomas Edison who, it turns out, makes Michael Vick look like a humanitarian. Read it to find out how that could be. This particular New York Times notable book of 2006 turns out to be notable indeed. I’ll read more by Gruen. Why not you, too?