Saturday, July 23, 2011

Water for Elephants

When somebody from my book club suggested that we read Water for Elephants as our second book, I immediately climbed onboard.  It's one of those books I've been meaning to read for a while, and coming on the back of The Night Circus made me even more excited for it.  Circuses are fun!  Right?  Well no, not really.  Most circuses involve copious amounts of horrifying animal abuse, which is even more readily apparent to customers than the meat industry's levels of abuse, and therefore makes their ignorance of it all the more horrifying... what?  I'm supposed to be talking about a novel here?  Oh, that's right.  Oops.

So the fact that The Night Circus and Water for Elephants have similar settings is about all they have in common.  Water for Elephants describes a realistic circus, set in Prohibition America (i.e. not supported by magic but the illegal booze is a-flowing).  It alternates between a present-day(ish) narration of Jacob, ninety or ninety-three years old (he can't remember), as a crotchety old man, semi-neglected by his family, as he goes through his dull, sleepy days in a nursing home; and his memories of his times in the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show On Earth as a young man who had just walked out on his last exams to become a veterinarian due to his understandable sorrow at the sudden loss of his parents.  The whole thing is extraordinarily well-researched (at least the bits that I checked up on were).

So here's the thing.  Unsurprisingly, Water for Elephants's circus is nothing like that of The Night Circus.  The grunt work of the Benzini Brothers Circus is done by poor black men, whereas the work of Le Cirque des Rêves is done by, well, magic.  The Benzini Brothers is run by jerks worried about the bottom line and everlasting fame, whereas Cirque is run by artists intent on creating.  Benzini fired people by redlighting them (i.e. throwing them off the train at night within sight of the red light marking that a town is nearby), whereas death and choice are the only things that separate worker and Cirque.  And oh yeah - Benzini's animals sometimes are hungry or thirsty or extremely overheated, or have the shit beaten out of them, whereas the few animals in Cirque are treated with only love and care (okay, to be fair we don't know this for sure but yeah, we know it).  What I mean to say is that Benzini Brothers is a real circus, whereas Le Cirque des Rêves is only the fantasy of one, and I know which one I prefer.

Preferring a circus is not the same as preferring a novel, except that in this case it is.  Putting my issue with animal abuse and lack of magic aside, Water for Elephants was still disappointing.  First off, both parts of the narrative were narrated in the present tense.  What?!  Present tense in novels is rare, though can be enjoyable, but here it was just strange.  I guess that Jacob is supposed to be dreaming of those times like he's living them, rather than remembering them, but it's just awkward.  And the transitions between the two were painfully obvious, to the point of losing my interest because I know what's coming.  In general, the novel made me too aware that I was reading, especially for my first time through.  Instead of losing myself in a world, I was noticing plot devices.  And when it seems like a character exists or a scene occurs for the sole purpose of furthering a plot line or demonstrating some metaphor, I don't really feel like reading.  The dissection and analysis should come on reflection and analysis, not a first read.

Oh, and the characters.  Jacob, the protagonist, is an ideal.  He will speak in defense of anybody, always has good intentions, and only gets angry in defense of some "lesser" creature (blacks, women, animals, et. al).  Very nice features in a person, but not so interesting in a character.  This is apparently balanced by his cantankerousness as an old guy, but all that does is make his character seem inconsistent.  So he is Good, and so is his lady love, Marlena, and they are obviously contrasted by Uncle Al, the circus's owner, and Augustus, Marlena's husband and the animal trainer, who are Bad.  These guys are out for money and fame and who the hell cares who gets trampled by their horsies?  Not them, because they are Mean Dudes.  I've heard that they're merged into one character in the movie, which sounds like an excellent decision to me because they lack individuality and are cast from the same mold.  The only interesting character is Rosie, the elephants, who has elements of sweetness and vengefulness and performs acts whose ratio of Good:Bad is actually questionable.  Plus, she's silly and drinks all the lemonade.

But it's all okay, because the novel ends and everybody gets theirs - the Good People get Good Things and the Bad People get Bad Things and isn't it just lovely?  Dull is really the word I'd use but that's okay.  I'll just listen to The Night Circus when it comes out on audiobook and forget that the ugliness ever happened.  Sorry, Ms. Gruen.


  1. I think yours is the first review I've seen of this book that is less than glowing. I recently bought a copy of it but had been wondering if it might be a victim of its own hype...?

  2. I didn't jump on this train when the book was published and I'm not sure that I ever will. However, I loved, loved, loved The Night Circus. I just searched your blog for a review but didn't find it. Will you be posting one? It was one book that I was myself nervous about reviewing because it was so, well, magical, to read.

  3. Sam- Yes, it's definitely overhyped, fear of which kept me from reading it for this long. Definitely disappointing.

    Emily- There's a link to my review in the post but just in case:

  4. I love this review. I can't say I've read too many reviews of this book and actually only considered reading it when I saw Chris Waltz was in the movie and figured he kicked so much ass in Inglorious that this might be worth it. I can't really say I'm surprised to hear that the book is so simplistic. It's too bad. It sounds like an interesting idea.