Will Byrnes's Reviews > Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
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really liked it

Ladies and gentlemen. Direct your attention to the performer in print. You will be amazed, dazzled and mystified by the daring feats you are about to witness. Well, that might be overstating a bit. The story does open with drama, though. A circus menagerie has gotten loose and there is mayhem. The narrator, Jacob, sees the ringmaster murdered. We then scoot ahead to the present. Jacob is in his 90s and looks back, revisiting his ghosts. From here, we flip back and forth between Jacob in the present and his recollections.

When Jacob is 23, his parents are killed in an auto mishap, leaving him penniless. He drops out of veterinary school, just shy of completion, and when the freight train he hops turns out to be transporting a circus he finds himself in a new life.

Sara Gruen image from The Globe and Mail

There is unkindness aplenty under the big top. An evil owner, Uncle Al, Blackie the enforcer, August, the mood-challenged and abusive supervisor of animals, and husband of Marlena, who performs with horses, and with whom Jacob is smitten. But for every cruelty there is kindness. Jacob is helped by the elderly alcoholic, Camel, when he is newly on the bum and Jacob later returns the favor. A grumpy dwarf named Walter shows a kinder side, in time.

What is real and what is an illusion? Gruen offers us a major sleight of hand that I will not write of here. But there are sundry references throughout the book. A circus, per se, is involved in the business of illusion. There is a wonderful image here of a hippo being paraded through town, even though it has already gone to meet its maker. Some relationships in the story are based on illusion as well.

But the core items here are Jacob’s love for the married Marlena, and the behavior of a newly acquired elephant, who may not be as dumb as she at first appears. While both tales are engaging, I did find the pacing to be somewhat slow. Thankfully, this is a very fast read. I know, that sounds contradictory, but one can flip through the pages quickly while waiting for something to happen. Gruen does a nice job of making her characters real, a wonderful gift.

I have no idea if Gruen had any intention of making political observations, but here are a few things one might see in her work. One gruesome practice engaged in by Uncle Al and his thugs is redlighting, or tossing employees from a moving train. Think of it as a pink slip on steroids. In the Depression era of the story, as in ours, there are plenty who would be more than happy to toss those of us on the lower echelon, let alone their mamas, from a moving train. Is Uncle Al the ultimate Republican? Class comes in for a look. The roustabouts, the working men, are treated far differently from the performers and from management. The class system is sealed in place. When times are tough, for instance, performers and managers are paid, but the roustabouts are often stiffed. I know that reminds me of soaring corporate profits while unemployment remains high. When one is physically damaged, management does its best to either dump the unwell, or find some darker use for them. Caring for the sick is clearly not something that is done here, at least not for the workers. Housing is distributed somewhat unequally as well.
In order to accommodate less than a dozen performers, we will now have sixty-four working men sleeping under wagons on the flats. (p 131)
You have to figure that any story featuring a character named Jacob should have a ladder, and indeed there are a few, but I did not see any particular heavenly references there. And if one is looking for classical cues, one might find that in Genesis 25:27 the biblical Jacob is a “dweller in tents.” Ok, it’s not much. Is there a parallel with the story of that earlier Jacob? Maybe, but if so it did not really jump out at me.

While Water for Elephants may not be the greatest book on earth, it is a very engaging and entertaining page turner. I would not confuse this with books with great literary ambition. It is what it is, a darned good read, and that is good enough to perform in the center ring.

PS - I suggest you take a peek at the review by GR pal, Petergiaquinta. He has a much better handle on the whole biblical reference thing, and some nice non-biblical insights beyond.

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Reading Progress

January 29, 2011 – Started Reading
January 29, 2011 – Shelved
January 31, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-30 of 30 (30 new)

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message 1: by Ij (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ij Will

I finally read Water for Elephants. I agree with most of your observations. I enjoyed this love story, and gave it five (5) stars. Great ending!!!


message 2: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King What a super review Will.

message 3: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Great review, Will! I still need to see this film. 'Is Uncle Al the ultimate republican?' haha, good stuff!

Lily Great review, Will. I agree. It's not the greatest book, but a very entertaining read.

Will Byrnes Thanks, Lily

message 6: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice At one point I was eager to read this; I believe Joshilyn Jackson blurbed it, but then I ended up reading the end of it out loud to my mother and lost the urge to go back and read it. I enjoyed your review, though, Will, as well as the other review you recommended.

tinna rain 我评了五星。

Will Byrnes ok

message 9: by Shalini (new) - added it

Shalini M I have wanted to read this one for a while now, but recently read some bad reviews. I don't look out for literary value in a book; I look for the story (but it should be well written). In that respect, you seem to like this book?

message 10: by #Tiara Girl (new) - added it

#Tiara Girl Wanted to read but peapole say its bad

message 11: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Shalini wrote: "I have wanted to read this one for a while now, but recently read some bad reviews. I don't look out for literary value in a book; I look for the story (but it should be well written). In that resp..."
I did

message 12: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Kiara Purdy wrote: "Wanted to read but peapole say its bad"
Most books will generate a diversity of opinion. I thought it was pretty good.

 Linda (Miss Greedybooks) Great review, I'd pick it up if I hadn't already.

message 14: by #Tiara Girl (new) - added it

#Tiara Girl Fine i will read it

message 15: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Linda (Miss Greedybooks) wrote: "Great review, I'd pick it up if I hadn't already."
Thanks, Linda

message 16: by #Tiara Girl (new) - added it

#Tiara Girl so were you talking to me

message 17: by #Tiara Girl (new) - added it

#Tiara Girl ???????? im confused

message 18: by LaTonya (new)

LaTonya What the fuck you mean

Cheri I really enjoyed this, myself, Will. Thanks for the look back at this one!

message 20: by Larry (new)

Larry Loftis Outstanding review, and well-written (love the last line: "in the center ring.")!

Jaline I loved this read, and your review reminded me of the many reasons why. Thanks for the journey down memory lane . . . even though I loved every second I spent reading this. :)

Felicia Interesting review.

leslie hamod Great review Will! I loved this book so much, I am in love with it! I hate to say it, but I told you so! Luv ya Will!😀

Dorie  - Traveling Sister :) Nice review, one of my favorites :)

message 25: by Murf the Surf (new)

Murf the Surf I wish I was as loquaciously elegant as you Will. I just love, love, love this book and enjoyed your review too!… Murf

message 26: by Lora (new) - added it

Lora Shouse Excellent review.

message 27: by Wayne (new)

Wayne Barrett Great review, Will.

message 28: by Rimgailė (new)

Rimgailė Kasparaitė Wonderful review, It's already on my to-read list!

message 29: by Pramodya (new)

Pramodya I watched the movie but haven't read the book. :D I wasn't that impressed with the movie, hopefully the book is better.

leslie hamod I love to see when you have enjoyed a book!

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