Fiction: “Water For Elephants” by Sara Gruen

water for elephantsWell, I can already tell it’s going to be “one of those days,” so I’m going to get a head-start on this post and hopefully finish it before I go home; otherwise, I’ll post it before Hannibal comes on (OH AND PS USA TODAY THANKS FOR THE HEART ATTACK where I read that Hannibal was as good as cancelled, but then I actually read the comments and learned that your reporting was ERRONEOUS because you said that Dads was on the bubble, like NO, Fox killed that piece of shit a while ago, so THANKS FOR THE MORNING HEART ATTACK DON’T ANYBODY DARE CANCEL HANNIBAL ON ME YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT I’LL DO)

ANYWAY.  (sorry.)

So this was the last book I had out from the library, and I started it around the same time as I started Strangers on a Train.  I tried to race through it last weekend because it was due on Monday.  Honestly, I started reading it thinking “If it doesn’t grab me immediately, I’ll just return it Monday and move on.”

And then, like a little bastard, it grabbed me by the ankles and followed me around.  I found myself reading more than ten pages before falling asleep.  Like, entire chapters.  It kept me up.

So, to avoid overdue fines, I returned the copy I was reading and took out a second copy of the book (because I’d already renewed it the maximum number of times allowed) and picked up reading where I left off.  I am so smart (and lucky that Water For Elephants was popular enough to warrant the library having multiple copies).

Water For Elephants is a book I’d seen all over the place – Target, Wal-Mart, Borders (before it closed); even Bull Moose, where I buy … yeah, I can say with confidence I buy all my books there now.  Anyway.  Why did I pick it up from the library instead of buying it when I had the opportunity dozens of times?

Because I could only find the paperback, and do you know what the back cover looks like? … Well, it looks like I’ll have to take a picture when I get home, because no one thought to put it up on Google Images.  The back of the cover is all blurbs – there’s no summary of the book!  And when I open the paperback, there are more blurbs and no summary!  And I’m sorry, the only books I ever buy without reading the summary are either by authors I’ve already read, or they were books I needed to buy for a class.  I’m not going to buy a book with no summary!  That’s like Alice not wanting to read a book with no pictures in it.

See?  Who does that?

So when I was on my historical fiction kick, I said “what the hell” and picked it up.  And honestly, I thought I wouldn’t like it – I mean, I heard the movie was a dud, and while I love Reese Witherspoon, I loathe Robert Pattinson (although then I learned that Christophe Waltz is in it, and that might make me turn this into a Movies Alaina’s Never Seen Tie-In), and I still didn’t really know what it was about besides a romance at a circus and elephants are involved.

Okay, now that it’s quarter past five and I feel like I’ve accomplished both a lot of things and yet also nothing, let me finish this post before venturing off into the weekend.

Note from the Future: I have really got to stop writing these partly at work and calling attention to the fact.  Not that I’m worried about repercussions; I just hate having to then go in and edit the post to say “actually, I left this halfway done on Friday then hung out in Boston for the weekend and now I’m finishing this on Sunday.”

Water For Elephants is the story of Jacob Jankowski, spanning from 1931 to the turn of the 21st century (thereabouts).  Told via flashbacks, he is about to sit for his final veterinary exams at Cornell in the summer of ’31 when his parents die in a car crash.  The bank has seized his father’s veterinary clinic in foreclosure, so he has nowhere to go.  In a moment of spontaneity, he jumps a passing train.  When he wakes up the next morning, he learns that he’s jumped aboard one of the premiere train circuses, that of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth (or something – I’m not looking it up, it’s not important).  Jacob is nearly thrown off the train, but when the owner discovers that he’s nearly a veterinarian, he keeps him on to assist with the animals.

His first job is to cure a Liberty horse, one of the members of Marlena’s equestrian act.  Jacob falls immediately in love with Marlena, because she’s beautiful and she loves her animals, but honestly, that’s the only reason I can see.  She’s married to the menagerie boss, August, who at first seems simply moody, but is later confirmed to be a paranoid schizophrenic.  He is one minute charming, courteous and generous; the next minute he’s jealous of Marlena and Jacob’s friendship and becomes violent.  The fact that Marlena is married to such a mercurial man adds to Jacob’s infatuation, but again, I feel that the romance comes out of a plot necessity and not necessarily from Marlena’s characterization.

It’s like — look, I’ve watched the first few seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer dozens of times.  And to this day, I cannot figure out when, where, and most importantly, why, Buffy falls for Angel.  I mean, to me, Angel pops out of fucking nowhere in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and gives her some info, and then he keeps popping up and giving her information (to the point where at one point, Xander comments that somebody should put a bell on him), and then she’s kissing him and then he’s a vampire, and she kind of backs away from him in the last half of the first season, but then she comes back from spending the summer with her dad in “When She Was Bad” and before you know it, they’re practically dating in “Halloween” and then everything turns to shit in “Surprise.”  But seriously – I do not understand the love Buffy has for Angel besides teenage infatuation.

That doesn’t mean I’m a Buffy/Spike fan.  The only relationship I like for Buffy is Buffy/Her Own Damn Mind.  Because Buffy’s a boss and doesn’t need to be defined by a relationship with a man or vampire.

(Riley sucks as a boyfriend, bee tee dubs.  Just sayin’.)

ANYWAY.  (drink!)  About halfway through the book, the owner — Uncle Al — buys Rosie he elephant from a bankrupt circus.  At first, Rosie seems stupid and unresponsive, and August beats her repeatedly for her inability to follow directions.  (Oh, sidebar – I’m sure PETA probably has a problem with this book, as there are a few instances of animal abuse and neglect.  Please note this if you decide to read the book.)

Finally, Jacob discovers that Rosie understands Polish, and since he (conveniently) happens to be of Polish descent and (conveniently) his parents taught him Polish, he helps August learn enough commands to be able to create an elephant act for Rosie and Marlena.  This only leads to more tension between both Jacob and Marlena (of the sexual kind, naturally, although see my problems above with Marlena’s character), and tension between Jacob and August (which usually culminated in a beating).

Overall, I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would.  Well, wait – let me back up.  I mean that I found myself reading the book quicker than I thought I would.  It only took me a week from start to finish!  That doesn’t usually happen!  But I felt that Marlena – and the relationship she had with Jacob – was very flat and lacked depth.  Will I read this again?  Maybe, but it will be quite a few years down the road.

Will I try and find the movie for cheaps and do a tie-in and see if it’s as horrible as I believe it will be?  Oh, most definitely.

Grade for Water For Elephants: 3 stars

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