31 October 2010

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants: A NovelAny novelist who can turn the reader's ignorance to advantage has my respect; Sara Gruen does it by using the reader's ignorance to highlight the wet-behind-the-ears naivete of her protagonist, Jacob. She also turns the reader's forgetfulness to advantage, letting the protagonist's uncertain remembrances guide the reader through the story.

I read Gruen's novel Water for Elephants about circus life this past summer, it was a lovely summer read. The story follows Jacob Jankowski's memories of his life as a young man. In his memories, he is transitioning from a young man's college life to a life on the road as a traveling vet for a circus; in the present time of the novel, he is an old man transitioning gradually into extreme old age.

His memories start with his veterinary school; due to a traumatic event, Jacob leaves his final exams unexpectedly. It is the peak of the great depression, and every option he considers stymies him.  He runs away and joins the circus, and encounters a cast of characters that live a double life. On stage, they are marvelous and beautiful, consummate entertainers and work as a well-oiled machine to make sure the show goes on. Off stage, they are just as misfit as is Jacob.

Some warnings for the squeamish: the animal brutality is, well, brutal. Some reviewers have said that these events occurred 50 years ago and don't represent a modern aesthetic; I think that's counter-factual. Consider for example the Humane Society's campaign against bear baiting. PETA has also documented cruel practices that exist today for elephants in circuses. Gruen's descriptions of circus animal treatment are thus relevant today.

Gruen's careful research into circus culture and the history of the depression gives veracity to the tale; the details of jake leg poisoning especially and its impact on the afflicted was well done.  Also relevant is Gruen's sympathetic description of Jacob and his predicament in the nursing home. He wants to have the respect and self-sufficiency that he earned for himself in the circus long ago; instead with his physical infirmities, memory trouble, and depression he recognizes his decline. The parallels between his young self - seeking love, acceptance, and control over his destiny - and his older self, seeking the same, are apparent upon reflection.

The story itself is touching and ends well; Jacob reclaims his autonomy and is on the road again.  Marlena's character is fiery and understandable as a love interest for Jacob; and Rosie herself, as expected, steals the show whenever she is on scene. August works exceedingly well as a sympathetic villain, in a twirly-mustachioed kind of way.

P.S. The author developed this work as part of the NaNoWriMo effort, which I find delightful. The project asks participants to start writing a novel on 11/1 and finish by 11/30 - many have parlayed National Novel Writing Month efforts into a published work. I keep daring myself to try it, and my pitiful excuses for not doing it are shameful. But seeing what Gruen accomplished in her month keeps me wondering if I could do it.

Take a look at the trailer for the upcoming movie also for more circus glamour:

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