It’s been a while since I’ve read a book I felt like writing about but I finished Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen at 2am last night and the words just flowed out of me. I got the novel on my Nook shortly after I watched Totem by Cirque du Soleil, which was absolutely amazing, and it was fascinating to imagine the life of a circus performer or working man which is entirely different from mine. And how if you’re part of a circus, that’s your whole life. I wikied the whole of Cirque du Soleil’s history that night, but needed more.
I remember watching the Water For Elephants movie trailer starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon years ago, and remember thinking meh. It just felt like yet another typical 1930s story, and Rob Pat held the same expression the entire trailer – sorry dude. But of course the book is different. The book is always different. And so there I was at 2am, voraciously swallowing the book to know every detail.
Water For Elephants is about vet student Jacob Jankowski who jumps a train after tragedy befalls his family and he’s left with nothing. Little did he know the train he jumped was a circus train belonging to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth! He’s in for the craziest ride of his life, and the story is framed by 93 year old Jacob who is living in assisted care and trying to hold on to who he is while slipping away, though not without a fight.
The book is known as historical fiction plus romance, and that’s exactly what the book delivers. The details written of the circus, so crazy, so bizarre, so completely extraordinary, were so fantastical that they had to be true, and some of them were. From the hippopotamus paraded in formaldehyde, to Lovely Lucinda, the resident ‘fat lady’ dying prematurely and the circus leader using her death to sell more tickets, the amazing thing about circus life is: the extraordinary is the ordinary, but at the same time, the magic means it’s all an illusion. We are brought up close to circus life, but the readers are never fooled; we are not the circus audience. We discover from the beginning of the book as one of the muscle guys holds Jacob out of the train car and wants to drop him for no reason other than his being dispensable that circus life is ugly. It’s rough, it’s wretched, there’s no glamour, nothing truly all that spectacular.
Of course the novel is set in the gritty 1930s during the American Depression era, and some of the book is passed for the young Jacob in an intoxicated frenzy, made even more urgent by the Prohibition at the time. Everything about the circus feels forbidden, and that’s only befitting of the central romance between Jacob and Marlena, the trainer who performs with the horses, and later an elephant named Rosie. Marlena is married to the equestrian director August, who’s equal part charming and violent, almost a personification of the circus himself. Jacob inevitably falls in love with Marlena, which is all so typical that no one can miss it, but how his story with Marlena plays out ultimately reflects the consequences of the violence, both from August and the circus.
(Spoiler alerts from here)
Jacob and Marlena restrain themselves for most of the novel, and the reader feels the overwhelming pressure. In a world where people are drinking openly during the Prohibition, offering prostitution and having sex in the grass outside tents, it can feel like the circus is the exception to morality and the ordered lives of Americans in that era. And yet here were Jacob and Marlena bursting to the seams trying to keep their feelings and desires under wraps. Ultimately when August breaks and accuses them in a violent fit of cheating, he’s mistaken, but he’s also not wrong. And the reader feels an odd sense of injustice and fulfillment. Sara Gruen is skilled in creating a world held together by violence and punctuated with small moments of kindness and generosity, and ultimately you just can’t help but root for Jacob and his foolishness.
And you also grow to love many of the minor but three-dimensional characters like Walter the dwarf who sleeps in the same train car as Jacob and the horses, and instinctively hates Jacob on first sight but has remained kind in spite of the prejudice he’s faced his whole life. You even grow to absolutely love all the animals, especially gentle but deadly Rosie the elephant.
However, it is the human relations that ultimately are all so interesting for me. While the circus is exception to the moral order at the time, prejudice, discrimination and class differences remain, and are magnified in the small space of the circus. The novel does an interesting study of the way people succumb to ugliness because they are subject to ugliness themselves. But how such moments are understandable, so very human. When Walter is angry with August, it seems only fair to use the arsenal of hate already afforded to him by the cultural milieu.
“Because I just know. There’s not a human bone in that kike’s body.”
“Watch your damned mouth!” I shout.
Walter stops to look at me. “What? Oh, hey, you’re not Jewish, are you? Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It was just a cheap shot,” he says.
“Yes, it was a cheap shot,” I say, still shouting. “They’re all cheap shots and I’m getting mighty damned sick of them. If you’re a performer, you take shots at the working men. If you’re a working man, you take shots at Poles. If you’re a Pole, you take shots at Jews. And if you’re a dwarf–well, you tell me, Walter? Is it just Jews and working men you hate, or do you also hate Poles?”
Eventually Walter admits he doesn’t hate anybody, not really, not based on race or ethnicity or class. It’s almost force of habit, it’s what we know, what is easily reachable, a cheap shot. And how much of this is the same today? How much of our hate is automatic, learned, pre-thought? While prejudice against Poles and Jews is taken as matter of fact in the book, it’s never taken as right. And these themes continue to ring true today, if not for Poles and Jews, but for people of colour, Muslims, refugees…
At the end of the day, my favourite part of the book is how it plays with reality. Everything that we know is what we know from Jacob as a cantankerous old man. His memory is not what it was, and the novel reminds us that people tend to remember what they want to. And it’s amazing to consider this key theme in the novel precisely because the circus has never been about the truth. So how much is historical, how much is fiction, and how much does it matter?
One of the most important things in the book is that the prologue which details the ending and the ending itself are written differently. It’s a simple twist that fools the reader at the beginning, and many readers online have insisted on one version of the story because it seemed told with more authority and clarity, but with old Jacob framing the narrative, do we really know? Is he just telling us what we want to hear, just like how circus goers see what they want to see? I’m not really sure, and I think that’s the point.
I’m really glad I picked up this book. When I was done, I went to rewatch the movie trailer again and still meh, though I noticed August was played by Christopher Waltz which can only elevate the material. Maybe one day I’ll actually watch the adaptation, but for the moment, Water For Elephants has got me excited about discovering new worlds again.
A book you can finish in a day:The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood A classic romance:The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë A book that became a movie:Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen A book with a number in the title:The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham A book with nonhuman characters:Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea A trilogy:The Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor A book from your childhood:Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong A book by a female author:The History of Love by Nicole Krauss A mystery or thriller: Crocodile Tears (Alex Rider series) by Anthony Horowitz A book with a one-word title: Villette by Charlotte Brontë A book set in high school: Scorpia Rising (Alex Rider series) by Anthony Horowitz A book with magic:Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer A book that was originally written in a different language:The Boat to Redemption by Su Tong A book set during Christmas:The Silent Stars Go By by Dan Abnett (Doctor Who)