Monday, September 1, 2014

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

PUBLISHER: Algonquin Books
PUBLICATION DATE: January 1st, 2006
SOURCE/FORMAT: Library book! 
KEYWORDS: circus, freak show, scary job yo
Jacob Jankowski thought he had a plan. He was about to graduate from an Ivy League school with his veterinary degree, and then he was going to partner up with his dad's practice. But when his parents unexpectedly die, and he learns that his father was working for trade on the pet's of Depression-crippled families instead of for money, he looses everything. So he does what any orphaned son would do in the 30's: he hops a train. But it's not just any ol' freighter, it's the train for the Benzini Brother's Most Spectacular Show on Earth! Jacob soon becomes ensnared in the world of workers vs performers, exotic animals, freaks, bootleg liquor, and the lovely Marlena. It doesn't take long for him to learn that the circus is just a big illusion, and you should never mix work with love. 
I love me a good circus story. I ate up GEEK LOVE by Katherine Dunn, and I am way too excited for the new season of American Horror Story. For some reason, I have just always been drawn into the world of circus' and freak shows, despite never having been to one myself. For some reason I wasn't sure, fully, if I wanted to read this. Mostly because it was sooooo popular a few years ago, and it's been made into a movie and I'll admit that I was definitely pleasantly surprised. I actually ate this book up in two and a half days. This book reads lightning fast, the pacing is really nice and the writing style is simple enough to just flow on and on and on. In each page there is a new revelation or piece of action that kept me glued to the page, and as I was reading it was playing like a movie in my head which I loved. There was super great descriptions, and Gruen does a fab job at pulling the reader into the world of a 1930's circus which I was OBSESSED WITH. 
That moment, the music screeched to a halt. There was an ungodly collision of brass, reed, and percussion--trombones and piccolos skidded into cacophony, a tuba farted, and the hollow clang of a cymbal wavered out of the big top, over our head and into oblivion.
Grady froze, crouched over his burger with his pinkies extended and lips spread wide.
I looked from side to side. No one moved a muscle--all eyes were directed at the big top. A few wisps of hay swirled lazily across the hard dirt.
"What is it? What's going on?" I said.
"Shh," Grady hissed.
The band started up again, playing "Stars and Stripes Forever."
"Oh Christ. Oh shit!" Grady tossed his food onto the table and leaf up, knocking over the bench.
"What? What is it?" I yelled, because he was already running away from me.
"The Disaster March!" he screamed over his shoulder.
I jerked around to the fry cook who was ripping off his apron. "What the hell's he talking about?"
"The Disaster March," he said, wrestling the apron over his head. "Means something's gone bad--real bad." 
That was on the second page. With a hook like that, how could you not get sucked into the action? As perfect as the pacing and world building was in this novel, I did take issue with one of the major plot lines which was the budding relationship between Jacob and the horse girl Marlena. Jacob gets adopted into the show as the circus vet, an easy in once he mentions he was about to have an Ivy League education. He's never worked on a circus, is unfamiliar with the lingo, and feels like giving up. Then he catches a glimpse of the liberty horses act, lead by the beautiful and delicate Marlena. After seeing the magic of her act and the love she has for the horses, he makes a pact to stay. For the animals, and because there's a big case of LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT for Jacob with Marlena. The issue with Marlena is that she is married to Jacob's boss August, the Equestrian Director. While their relationship was sweet sometimes, I didn't fully buy that she was worth the risk, and there are A LOT of risks when it comes to falling in love with your boss' wife. We see August being a terrible human/incapable of being a good husband to Marlena, but we don't really see what makes her so special. She didn't have much of a personality, despite her having such a large presence in the circus. 

Despite the somewhat flat relationship between Jacob and Marlena, there were a lot of other solid relationships between friends and enemies. I felt like a fly on Jacob's shoulder as he navigated the world of caring for exotic animals, and learned the shady, shady ways of Uncle Al, the owner of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. There are a lot of characters that I really like, but I didn't trust a single person. This kept the tension high throughout the entire novel, and I didn't know what to fully expect. There is also a lot of drama of all kinds. Police raids! Sex with the cooch girl! Loving your boss' wife! Drunken brawls! The constant threat of being red lighted! At every page turn there was always something happening to push the story forward and keep things engaging.
I'm blubbering like the ancient fool I am, that's what.
I guess I was asleep. I could have sworn that just a few seconds ago I was twenty-three, and now here I am in this wretched, desiccated body.
I sniff and wipe my stupid tears, trying to pull myself together because that girl is back, the plump one in pink. She either worked all night or I lost track of a day. I hate not knowing which.
I also wish I could remember her name, but I can't. That's how it is when you're ninety. Or ninety-three. 
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is told in two time frames. There is the young Jacob working for the circus, and there is the old Jacob, who is living out the rest of his life in a nursing home. Old Jacob's life is not that interesting, and the parts of his story as an old man were not as engaging to me. The big story is that there is a circus being set up in the parking lot across the street, and this is what spurs Jacob into thinking about the golden days. Even though this collision of his past and present was intriguing, there just wasn't enough happening. I would've preferred to read a whole book (and maybe a second) about Jacob's life on the circus and working with the animals. Also, the way the book ends made me give an eye roll of epic proportions. I just wasn't about it :(

Even though I was't a fan of the 'present' Jacob and his relationship with Marlena on the circus, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS was a truly engaging read that was hard for me to put down. I was fully immersed in the world of a Prohibition-era circus, and there was a lot of drama that made this a quick, quick read.
Have you read this book or seen the movie? What did you think? How does the movie add up? (I still need to see it!)