Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Water for Elephants

I've started and stopped this post a few times since finishing Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen this past weekend. I read it on the recommendation of a blogger buddy and was not disappointed. However, I must admit that I was skeptical upon seeing a plot summary of the book: following the death of his parents, Jacob, a Cornell veterinary student, abandons his exit exams, hops a train (which just so happens to be a circus train) and becomes the circus vet, ultimately falling in love with one of the performers, which causes one calamity after another. Fortunately, I didn't judge the book by it's cover, nor by it's plot summary, and was supremely rewarded. Without spoiling the details, here are three reasons I enjoyed the book:

1) I found the the book revealed much about the plight of the elderly. The story is told as a flashback; Jacob recalls his days on the circus from his wheelchair in a nursing home. The flashback chapters account for the majority of the book, yet it was the present day chapters, as Jacob describes the challenges and the loneliness he was experiencing in the home, that I found most eye opening.
2) Don't get me wrong, the flashback chapters were wonderful. Though three main characters were primary to the narrative, the circus setting allowed the author to develop a host of unique personalities. The cast included carnival hands, big show performers, freak show additions, a rotund circus boss, and an entire zoo, including Rosie the Elephant. I enjoyed the evolution of these characters over the course of the story, most of all Walter.
3) If you've ever read Cormac McCarthy, you've seen the pinnacle of descriptive writing; the entire world seems to come alive with McCarthy's personification. Read McCarthy if you want a greater appreciation of the English language and the power of metaphor. However, with Sara Gruen you get meticulous detail. It is not hard to imagine the Depression-Era circus as she outlines and colors each setting with precision.

I relish fiction but gravitate towards historical fiction above all. I appreciate Gruen's research and the knowledge she cultivated about her subject before ever putting pen to paper. It makes a fascinating narrative all the more relevant in my opinion. All in all, a great book. Try it out for yourself. If you're like me, you'll refuse to put it down in the last hundred pages.

- Joel


bowerbird beau said...

i had been meaning to pick this up. it's on my mid-continent public library cue, that & i loved the road.
i just finished a michael chabon book, i think you'd like it. you read any of his work?

starnes family said...

I think your review is as lovely as the book! You write beautifully.

I, too, was turned off by the plot. I am not a supporter of the circus. Took our then 2 year old once and couldn't enjoy any of it.....kept thinking about how these poor animals were living. But, it came highly recommended, so I picked it up. And, like you, couldn't put it down!

Join in our Book Club discussion at the end of October on my blog. Would love for you to share your opinions1

Joel said...

I used to be afraid of clowns when I was little so that circus was always a traumatic experience for me. I'll definitely post my thoughts at the end of the month!

Joel said...

Never read any Chabon. What would you recommend?