Book review: Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants”

To be frank, I only really got to know about Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants” when Robert Pattinson’s name got attached to the project. Considering that the poor guy’s every move is reported on and gushed upon by countless Twihards the world over, it’s hard not to find out what he’s getting involved in.

And once I got a hold of “Water for Elephants”, it does seem like a good decision for him to get involved with the book’s movie adaptation. The blurbs declare that the book spent more than a hundred weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers list, and there is even a Stephen King recommendation inside. The built-in audience may not be as rabid as the “Twilight fans”, but one can be sure that they’re there.

With so much buzz surrounding the book — and me being the most gullible person in the known universe — I started reading the book with pretty steep expectations. And as always happens when I expect something from anything and anyone, I end up slightly disappointed.

“Water for Elephants” tells the story of Jacob Jankowski, a student of veterinary science at Cornellwho finds the rug pulled out from under his feet by the sudden death of his parents. The Depression has left Jacob with no money to his name and with no home to live in, forcing him to work in the Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

It is among the circus’ motley crew of animals, working men, and performers that Jacob meets thebeautiful horse rider, Marlena, and the charismatic elephant, Rosie. It is through caring for the two that Jacob finds a sense of purpose that he had thought gone with the death of his parents.

However, Jacob’s new lease on life is in danger of derailing because of the machinations of August, a paranoid schizophrenic who also happens to be Marlena’s husband and the circus’ head animal trainer. As August grows more and more suspicious of the closeness between Jacob and Marlena, he becomes increasingly violent, first towards Rosie, and then towards Marlena.

When it becomes clear that August will only become even more violent over time, it is up to Jacobto find an escape from the circus for him, Rosie, and Marlena. But will he be able to find a way out before it is too late?

The Philippines isn’t exactly a country that grew up with the circus. Other than visits from acrobatic troupes that have now taken over the conventional definition of what a circus is, most young Filipinos probably do not have an idea what an old school circus a la The Ringling Brothers is like.

As such, it is when Gruen’s narrative turns to circus life in the 1930s that “Water for Elephants” becomes the most engrossing. Whether describing Marlena’s dazzling equestrian act or Rosie’s starmaking pachyderm performance, Gruen’s descriptions never fail to inspire a little bit of starry-eyedwonderment from her readers.

The book also alternates in perspective from a young Jacob Jankowski in the 1930s to a “90 or 93 year old” Jacob now stuck in a wheelchair at a nursing home. These present-day Jacob’sobservations on old age, his family, and the secret he has kept for decades also prove to be asurprisingly engaging exploration of aging and the difficulties of being older than you feel.

Between present-day Jacob’s musings and the grand spectacle of the 1930s circus, it’s easy to see why readers would be pressed to read on and discover the big secret that Gruen hints at in thenovel’s prologue.

However, the novel isn’t as exciting as the hype that came before it makes it out to be.

The love story in the center of the novel doesn’t exactly set the pages on fire. The romantic development between the two seems inorganic and tacked on, about as believable as circussideshow attraction. There is more chemistry displayed between Jacob and the animals he cares for, most especially Rosie — and when the most believable relationship in your novel is an interspeciesone, then perhaps you should have just cast off the extraneous human.

Gruen also seems unable to focus on one major plot, trying to take on too much and only partially succeeding at it. Rather than relegating some other aspects of the novel to charming subplots, she insists on bringing them all to the fore, which often makes the novel feel uneven and a little stunted in some chapters.

The last quarter of the novel also sags down into too much melodrama, departing from the grittier feel of the novel’s earlier parts and making the last few chapters a little tedious to read. If it weren’t for the strength of the previous chapters, it’s hard to think of anyone plowing through the last few segments.

Perhaps the real achievement that Gruen has accomplished with “Water for Elephants” is the fact that it still manages to be a serviceable and enjoyable work despite these pretty major weaknesses. Just like the members of the circus at the center of her novel, Gruen is determined to put on an entertaining show – no matter the challenges in the way. And that is something one can’t help but admire.

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