litunderground

Book Review: Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

In Book Reviews on March 14, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Wow.

I’m a sucker for fantasy. I love the thought of taking everyday people, sympathetic heroes, and putting them in very, very unusual situations. I love that test of human character that reveals heroism or cowardice in the face of such things.

Turns out there are thin spots in this reality where you can still see such extraordinary revelations of human character. One of those proving grounds, oddly enough, is a circus.

A circus is a fantastic realm to begin with. We’re usually introduced as children, back in the days when it’s easy to believe in magic, and a circus therefore remains a shadow of fantasy realms, a place where you can see the unusual and extraordinary and still have cotton candy.

The Benzini Brothers circus, though, has a villain at the helm. All of the smiling performers and prancing horses seen by children held entranced in the magic of the big top only masks heartbreak and victimization. These people and animals are trapped by their circumstances, and while for some of them the magic of the circus persists, for most of the others, the magic binds them in a nightmare.

One of these people has already experienced too much loss. The book’s protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, had his life planned in a neat line before him. Two days before joining the circus, he was a typical college coed, preparing to write his final exams for a veterinary degree so he could join his father in his father’s practice. One awful car accident takes everything away from him, and he’s thrust out into the world and ends up in the shadowlands of the Benzini Brothers circus.

Jacob is drafted to be the circus’s veterinarian and is put in the service of August, the animal supervisor. August is mercurial to a fault, and it turns out that he has paranoid schizophrenia. I won’t go into too much detail, but August is painted heavily as an antagonist. I really don’t think I liked that, since he was obviously sick and should have been taken for treatment. Instead, the true antagonist of the book pushed him too far and used him to lash out at those around him. He wasn’t the bad guy, he was only the gun the bad guy was holding.

Jacob meets and falls in love with Marlena, August’s wife and the star of the circus’s equestrian act. The romance is a bit predictable and I don’t really get a sense of chemistry between these two, just mutual need and comfort and solace. Nice, but for two people of that age, I think there should have been a bit more spark.

The treatment given to Rosie, the mischievous elephant, makes me want to go to the zoo. Of course, not being able to interact with the elephants there will probably just make me angry.

Finally, I give it up to the author. She has either done extensive research on this book to make it feel authentic and to use Great Depression situations with a native’s ease, but she also used humor to make the combination of Great Depression and trapped innocence not so oppressive. Her handling of the 90-something Jankowski was also a treat: human, three-dimensional, and unflinchingly honest. Well done.

There’s no way I’m missing the next circus coming through town.

MJ HEISER

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