By Alanna Anderson
***There is content within the review that may ruin the plot for some people***
If you’re into historical fiction, shifts between time period, romance, slightly graphic sex scenes, and don’t mind animal abuse and violence or slightly unrealistic endings, then Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen might just be for you.
The story tells the journey of the main character, Jacob, who ends up in the circus after an unfortunate event leaves him feeling lost, abandoned, and in search of a new home. The rest of the story entails not only his journey with the circus, but also narrative shifts to present time where he’s in an old folks home complaining about his helpless state. Not only are the morals and scenery of the story compelling, but the characters of the story, for the most part, seem to come to life.
If you are looking for action, this story is probably not the best place to look for it but it does include its own spark. The story is one that mainly touches on the struggles and troubles of life and those who are living, just trying to make it through. The main downfalls are the main character (and his romance), unnecessary description, and lack of a structured plot that keeps the story from being truly great. Overall, the main purpose of the story was clear and I felt anticipation, but not enough to be truly impressed with the story.
Something that definitely caught my attention throughout the story were the morals that the characters introduced. The author had the good fortune of choosing a setting and time period that could be manipulated easily for her story. Since the story took place during The Great Depression, Gruen does a great job of channeling all of the desperation and loss that was common during that time. This was also used to find ways to implement specific themes and values throughout almost the whole story, but the one that stuck out the most to me was the idea of respect. The idea of being able to respect people as a common courtesy and only stopping when their actions prove that they should be treated otherwise.
Another moral was that everyone has struggles and that it’s not wrong to acknowledge them. These are just two among the many that could’ve been interpreted, like how being abusive and not showing humanity can result in a hard case of karma. The morals definitely made the story more complex emotionally. If someone wanted to read a fiction book that touched on morals and the underlying aspects of human nature then this book is suggestible. This is one of the techniques that I really appreciated in the book and found to be enjoyable.
It was enjoyable how the author took advantage of characters and their development in order to keep the reader interested. Sadly, she seems to expand on every character except for Jacob and Marlena (a person very close to Jacob). With these two characters she sort of expects the reader to just like them and automatically accept them. This lead me to create a strong bond with a lot of the characters, such as Kinko, a man who ends up being Jacob’s friend. I really felt for him and wanted to hear more about his story than I wanted to hear about Jacob’s. Another person who I wanted to know more about was Camel, a kind-hearted drunk in the circus, as it’s hinted at that he has a dramatic past, but his past is only mentioned to make Jacob have sympathy for him.
A way that the author created these connections was making the reader feel sympathy for
a character; it made me care more about them and feel like I’m supposed to pay attention to them. It was actually very effective but where the author went wrong is when she only added in these characters’ stories to attempt to make Jacob more interesting. I feel that this was a lost opportunity for her because her story was held back due to trying to progress a character who just wasn’t that interesting.
A cool aspect of the story is that the point of view shifts between the young and older version of Jacob. Seeing the differences between the two sides of him helped with the mystery of the story because it built anticipation as to how he ended up where he was at. His grouchiness seemed a bit odd too. When he is young he is cheery and innocent and chivalrous, and when he is older he loses that charm and becomes a crabby elderly man. This can happen and I’m sure that it has happened to people before, but for the character himself it seemed to just discredit the positive emotions that he feels while he’s young. This also begins to create too strong of a contrast between young Jacob and older Jacob. The differences in their personality at times makes it seem like I’m not even reading from the perspective of the same character.
The personification in the story was one of my favorite techniques. Rosie, the smartest and most kind-hearted elephant who is Jacob’s best friend, and even other animals such as the always smiling chimpanzee were described frequently as smiling or doing something such as shaking a hand in thanks, or showing a strong spark of intelligence. This had the benefit of making me feel closer to the animals than the humans sometimes because they were the only ones acting relaxed most of the time and not freaking out like the humans were.
The one issue with this is that I wanted more mentions of the animals. They seemed like they would be a focal point of the story because of Jacob’s occupation and interests, but they’re used more to enhance the story than actually be that involved in it. The personification of the animals was made even more interesting when they’re compared to how the humans are physically described in the story. In one sex scene the man is made to sound beast-like and in moments of anger the humans are described as feral and wild. This contributed to the parallel of appearance being deceiving and the “real animals” being humans due to their destructive nature.
I started reading the story with high expectations because of the buzz that had been built around it, but found myself greatly disappointed. Expecting something great from a book because it has become popular and a movie is always a way to find disappointment. I still have an underlying frustration with the story because I was stuck in a state of excited expectation and never-ending boredom.
Many aspects of the story left me conflicted, like my opinion on Jacob. He was the kind of main character that I felt sympathy for, but started to lose a connection to because I was constantly waiting for him to make up his mind and come to a decision about his life and people and stick to it. Luckily, I felt a better connection to a lot of the other characters of the story and they’re what helped me to pull through and kept me reading. I do appreciate that the impression of chaotic circus life did help me to connect to the story and Jacob more.
The anticlimactic events in the story (that were usually anticlimactic due to Jacob’s constant inaction) contributed, in my opinion, to the story’s decrease in greatness. It’s alright to have a few teasing moments, but the story seemed to take the moments that I was looking forward to and made them completely disappear. The ending made me want to bang my head against a wall for a bit as well. It seemed too farfetched and unrealistic and completely rushed. It seems especially rushed when I found out that the author wrote the story in a month, and this might have made it zoom through the editing process. If it weren’t for my interest in the characters of the story and how they would turn out my interest in the story would’ve almost been completely gone.
My awareness of writing techniques definitely made me disappointed with certain aspects of the story. Scenery was definitely a high point and cannot be touched, but the graphic sex scenes of the story felt sort of desperate at times. Instead of relying on the natural surprising aspects of the circus, the author began to write in sex scenes that left me wondering about the necessity of them.
As they continued I became more and more aware of how unnecessary they were and how exactly they were holding the story back. It seemed like the author felt the need to throw in unnecessary events to an already wild story, unrealistic love between love interests, a slightly boring main character that remains stagnant while others develop, and a pace that isn’t consistent. All of these elements contributed to my displeasure at the story.
Gruen’s imagery was bitter-sweet for me. Some of her imagery was enjoyable and helped me to keep reading. The life of someone living at a circus was vivid and descriptive and I could clearly imagine Jacob tending to the animals, and his vivid horror at being tricked into being bit by a lion. A counter to this is the fact that Gruen would describe some unimportant things more than others. There’s a sexual scene that is described in great (great, great, great) detail and it bordered on making me uncomfortable because the language and description became very vivid at this time specifically. At other times, events that were important to me just fell through the cracks. So while imagery was one of my favorite techniques of the story because it connected me to the text, it also put me off at times because of the moments and events that the author chose to explode and describe the most.
One of the biggest downfalls of the story was its lack of a structured and well paced plot. The story begins with a flash of a future event and it built the anticipation a lot. After reading that my expectations for the story grew even more because I looking forward to said huge event.
The beginning of the story had a pace that was okay. In the middle of the story I started to get the feeling that the author was getting bored with the story. It just felt like she was slowing down too much and trying to expand all of the moments that really didn’t need that done to them. At the end of the story I was so disappointed. The author seemed to just give up and assume that what she had written was enough to make up for a rushed ending. Basically, it felt like she was turning in an assignment that was due in an hour. This caused me to care a bit less about the story because she seemed to care less too.
The story had good points and bad points, but overall it is not a book that I will come back to soon. I felt like I was constantly looking for something that the story just couldn’t provide. The good use of writing techniques really couldn’t make up for the issues that I saw with pacing, Jacob, and the lack of attention drawn to certain aspects like secondary characters, because they were too distracting. If I had to read the story again it would be as a reference for imagery, but not for the plot at all. I’m still really glad that I could find a moral to take away from the story, but it’s from what I found in the text and not from any special relationship with a character. Maybe if the author had payed more attention to making her events deliberate and blending with her writing techniques I would feel differently.
I would suggest this book to someone if I knew that that didn’t bother them. I’d also suggest this book to people who enjoy books with imagery and are looking for something fun that includes morals about life, but not something that is even close to being considered a literary classic.
Alanna Anderson is a Sophomore at Barbara Ingram