Book Review: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants

With a secret like that, at some point the secret itself becomes irrelevant. The fact that you kept it does not.

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

In late October, the Vancouver Public Library held its annual book sale. I’d never had the chance to stop by in previous years, but this year, I visited the sale twice, and it exceeded my expectations. There were thousands of interesting titles, many in pristine condition, and I managed to pick up three novels, at an unbelievable $0.75 each: Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, and Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants.

Although Water for Elephants was the last book I picked up at the sale, it also happened to be the first one I read, for a simple reason. I do most of my reading commuting to and from work, and the other novels were simply too heavy for me to lug around each day. Water for Elephants is a slim, 331-page paperback, making it the lightest of the bunch, but it was not a quick read like I expected it to be.

Water for Elephants is a dense read, filled with intricately detailed descriptions. Gruen’s narration provides the reader with vivid images of the Great Depression contrasted with the cheap, artificial glitz and glamour of circus life. As any good book should, it provided me with a glimpse into life in that era, with the necessary terminology and background. Luckily enough for the reader, Jacob is unexpectedly thrown into circus life at the beginning of the novel, and I learned circus terminology along with him, making it vastly easier for me.

Despite the circus setting, the narrative is dull, and, to be honest, predictable, although there is somewhat of a plot twist. It’s the age old story of a young man, in this case Jacob, taking a risk by abandoning the life he knew, meeting a beautiful woman married to the wrong man, and falling in love. Marlena, the object of Jacob’s affections, is one of the flattest characters I’ve had to encounter in a long time. She is the beautiful, long-suffering wife of an erratic and violent man, who is mostly demure but a staunch believer in animal rights. She is unfailingly kind and hopes for the best, and there was nothing about her that was unpredictable as a character.

I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the animals, which isn’t something I encounter in most books, where the animal characters are included more as afterthoughts, scenery, or as plot devices. In Water for Elephants, there is a plethora of animal characters, ranging from the exotic circus animals to the average canine companion. Jacob and Marlena care about the animals deeply, which is what unites them, and as a reader, I was drawn to sympathize with the poorly treated animals more than the poorly developed human characters. That being said, I suppose this isn’t a book for those who aren’t interested in animals.

Much of the dialogue is corny, and the relationship between Jacob and Marlena feels contrived. When I read a book, I tend to carry around a pack of Post-Its with me, to mark passages that I find insightful or prose that I find especially inspiring. In this book, I think I left less than ten Post-Its all together. Although the descriptions of the circus and its performers were intensely detailed and drew me in, the lack of a compelling plot, compelling characters, and just plain good dialogue made this book a lacklustre read for me.

Even August, who I personally thought had the most potential to be an interesting and memorable character, was not given enough time to develop his personality fully. Although I appreciate the attention that Gruen gives to the animals, who are often neglected in other works of fiction, I thought that a little more time could have been spent in fleshing out the human characters, who paled in comparison to their animal companions.

YES OR NO?: YES, but definitely not a strong yes. I didn’t have to fight to finish this book, and I didn’t dislike it or anything, but it was simply unmemorable. If you’re interested in animals or the historical context of the book, I would recommend it, but other than that, it’s not a must-read.

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