Objectively, Water for Elephants is average. It brings nothing new to the fray; it’s ridden with overused character tropes and a predictable storyline. There’s nothing distinctly special about Water for Elephants… but despite all of that, I found Water for Elephants enchanting and magical.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen follows Jacob Jankowski, a veterinarian student who, after losing everything he had, joins the circus, namely the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Set during the Great Depression, Jacob navigates the complex culture of the circus and also discovers a sense of purpose and also something beautiful that he cannot bring himself to stay away from.
Unlike my previous reviews, I will start this review with criticisms first. The major romance in the novel is bland but isn’t unique and, overall, feels uninspired. Although Water for Elephants is a romance novel, I would have liked Water for Elephants even more if it focused on Jacob navigating the nuances of ‘circus culture’ (for lack of a better name) or the hardships that circus and its people face, especially since it takes place during the Great Depression. Particularly with the former, when one of the circus workers explains to Jacob the vernacular – what to call the performers in their presence ‘performers’ and what to call them when the performers aren’t present ‘kinkers’ – intrigued me, and I wish Gruen developed this further and posed this as an obstacle for our main character. Nonetheless, the strong emphasis on the novel’s romance leaves it feeling stagnant at some points of the story, and eventually becomes increasingly uninteresting, especially when there are so many other aspects to this novel that could have been developed further.
Some of the characters were flat and one-dimensional, playing into character tropes and plot stereotypes. One of these characters was Marlena, which disappointed me because I enjoy interesting female characters. In saying that, Barbara, one of the performers in the circus who has no more than a few lines in the whole novel, is more interesting and three-dimensional than Marlena. August’s characterization was also disappointing, and plays into the Insane Equals Violent trope. August’s seemingly nuanced characterization falls flat when the explanation for his behaviour is easily explained by his diagnosis.
Despite the flaws in Water for Elephants – all of which I am conscious of – there was something alluring about this book. It’s not perfect – far from it – but I enjoyed it immensely. I love circuses; I remember going to my first circus and it was such a magical experience for me. Reading Water for Elephants gave me the same sort of feelings. Maybe it’s the idea of this fantastical circus that captures the hearts of its audiences but is, under the surface, dark, dangerous and terrifying was an idea that intrigued me immensely.
Though it is implicit and subtle, Water for Elephants felt like a celebration of life. Perceived through Jacob’s eyes, we too experience the beauty he perceives, the marvel and the pain. There were incidences of sex in the novel, but the sex and debauchery was not gratuitous, but were events where Jacob confronts the reality of his new life, illustrating contrasts between his life before joining the circus and the life as he knows it. This motif reoccurs throughout the book, when Jacob narrates his life in the circus, and contrasts it with his life as an elderly man in a rest home. The distinct comparison between Jacob’s life in the circus and his life as an old man illustrate the force of change and time, and no matter what we endure in life, no matter the lively, eventful life that Jacob had as the circus’s veterinarian, everyone changes and everyone ages, and life doesn’t owe you anything.
If anything though, the thing I loved the most was the elephant, Rosie. My opinion is very biased, especially since elephants are one of my favourite animals, but Rosie as a character felt so deep to me, and she wasn’t even human. The plot twist we see midway (spoiler:when we discover that Rosie is Polish and thus only understands Polish, not English, and she is not stupid after all) through the book made me laugh with such glee that I seldom experience when reading.
Above all though, Water for Elephants is profoundly melancholic. I read the ending to my sister and after we laid on our beds thinking about it and reflecting on the emotions we felt elicited by the ending. Water for Elephants has its flaws, but it was an enchanting read that satisfied me and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Book Name: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Published by: Algonquin Books