Book Thoughts: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I haven’t done many (any?) book reviews here but am jotting down my thoughts on Water for Elephants, a novel about circus life by Sara Gruen, because I have found online only extravagant praise for the book — including numerous comments along the lines of “I don’t know anyone who’s read the book who hasn’t loved it” — and I wanted to at least weigh in with another view. I finished the book only because it was a book group read (although that didn’t stop one person in my group from returning it to the library in disgust), and the ending(s) did not justify my perseverance.

First, what’s good about the book: It’s a very fast and easy read (I read it in a 24-hour period). The writing, for the most part, flows well, although there are notable exceptions, and some passages felt cliched and old. The main character, Jacob, is likable and engaging both as a 23-year-old and as a 93-year-old. I don’t know much about circuses or the Depression but from reviews I’ve read, Gruen seems to have researched her work thoroughly and captured the atmosphere and spirit of both the place and time. The nursing home scenes, though they are too few imo, rang true. The themes of the book are interesting: good vs. evil, responsibility and culpability for actions, charming illusion and harsh reality, inhumane humans and human-acting animals and human ‘freaks,’ the twists of memory, and, of course, rivalry.

Now to the rest.

The writing at times feels clunky and cliched (especially the sex and post-sex scenes); there wasn’t one line of prose or any paragraph in this book that made me swoon with delight or want to mark it to remember it. The plotting, while fluid, is predictable. Even the ‘surprise’ ending didn’t feel like one to me; the structure of the book led me to believe that the ‘prologue’ version of events would be re-imagined at some point, and the second (‘real’) version of events is even less satisfying than the first.

But these are minor quibbles in a fast-paced, plot-centered book. The larger problem for me is that the book takes on grand themes and then treats them so simplistically. I didn’t recognise this at first; I just knew something didn’t sit well with me when I finished the book. Then a friend described a family situation in terms of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and I saw what was troubling me about this book.

This is a book in which the major characters are either good guys or bad guys: Jacob and Marlena are good, Uncle Al and August are bad. Walter and Camel, supporting characters, are more complex but are basically foils for the good guys and the bad guys; the brutal, cruel treatment by Al and August of Walter and Camel reinforces in the reader the notion that these men are Bad with a capital B., and the kind treatment of these men by Jacob shows us how Good with a capital G he is. Rosie, not as major a character as I would have liked, gets to be seen as ‘good’ (even as a ‘heroine’ according to the blurb on the paperback edition of the book) even though she commits a ‘bad’ act. Is this because she is ‘just’ an animal (though it’s hinted that she knows what she is doing) or because she is justified in retaliating against a bad guy who has so harmed her and others?

What troubles me about this book, and about the nearly universal praise for it, is that it’s a book that celebrates as good and right ‘justifiable’ violence. It seeks to uphold the illusory line between profane violence — that of the bad guys, violence inspired by greed, selfishness, and even a mental illness like schizophrenia — and sacred violence — violence done to scapegoat the bad guys, violence done in the name of good, kindness, and love. Rosie’s act essentially frees Jacob and Marlena to a lovely life together. The message here is that if we can just kill all the bad people, or expel them in some way, then we can finally live in peace and harmony. But as Solzhenitsyn said in the Gulag Archipelago: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Gruen’s novel may have accurately contrasted the brutal and nitty-gritty reality of circus life during the Depression with the ‘step right up’ illusion of the entertaining family-friendly circus, but her novel only solidifies the illusion that we can live in peace once we identify and do away with the evil-doers.


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