Meg’s Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
(If you feel like hacking a canary, then 3.5.)
My mother’s not an avid reader, but when she finds something she likes she proceeds to force it upon everyone. And by everyone, I mean me. The format has worked well in the past (I may not have ever read Harry Potter had she not bought the books and locked me in my room to read them), so when she started harping on about Water for Elephants, I assumed it would be another terrific find.
And it might be. Or it might not. I can’t decide. Water for Elephants has got my feathery panties in a twist; I still can’t figure out if it was a good book or simply a fluff book hiding under the cape of capital-L Literature.
The story is narrated by the 90-something Jacob Jankowski, as he recalls his twenties. The majority of the plot revolves around the sudden death of his parents, which indirectly leads him to join the circus. The words ‘joining the circus’ should send up red flags; after all, nothing but ridiculous shenanigans (or crazy killer clowns) have ever followed the phrase. But I will say one thing about Gruen’s writing: she keeps things grounded. When big, over-the-top events are happening, the narrative is so firmly controlled by Jacob’s thoughts and emotions that the story never runs away from the author completely. That’s quite a feat considering the ending, which caught me by delightful surprise.
However, I have issues with said narrator. Nursing-home Jacob is presented in a straight-forward manner: an aging man who longs for life with more freedom—or at least a life with a little more living involved. For the first third of the book, he’s a fairly reliable narrator. But that reliability slams into an enormous questionmark when another character points out that, sometimes, old people can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what they wish to be real.
Warning, Meg! Warning! Was that a hint that Jacob’s an unreliable narrator? Does it mean that the entire story’s a big pile of wishful thinking? At another point in the story, Nursing Home Jacob has a complete mental lapse. This Jacob simply isn’t all there—so how authentic are his memories?
In the end, it’s hard to tell. The outlandish story composition could indicate two things: Jacob’s making things up or a story about a circus is simply outlandish no matter who’s telling it. I kept holding out for one of Jacob’s kids to show up, thus lending some outside credibility to his story, but that never happened. I was left wondering how much of the story was real and, really, how much ‘truth’ mattered. Was it all a show? The whole thing? Including the title which never really made sense? What the hell did the water for elephants have to do with anything?
I did a quickie internet search for other people’s feelings on Jacob’s reliability as a narrator and quickly realized that I’d fallen into a common trap: over-analysis. There is squat about Jacob as an unreliable narrator. Nothing about the meaning of ‘truth.’ Zilch about the existence of a secondary story lying in wait under the first.
Disappointment set in. The surface story is quite enjoyable (I read it in under 24 hours), but knowing that there is only that surface story is a let down. With just a couple carefully crafted passages to prod at a few other themes and ideas, the book could have been truly wonderful. As it is, there is groundwork and no follow through. Bummer.
That said, it was a fast, fun read, with lively characters and a great bit of misdirection. The ending(s) were a bit sickly sweet, but not to the point of ruining the dark, dare I say, grittiness of the overall story. I do wonder how it will transition to the big screen, though.
The movie (which I have yet to see) stars Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. Witherspoon, who is a giant ball of charisma, I can imagine so easily as the heroine Marlena. But Pattinson is the opposite of anything giant ball or charismatic. A black hole of boredom? An abyss of apathy? Not quite the bright lights of a circus.
Perhaps is not fair to judge him solely on his role in Twilight and Harry Potter, as both of those demanded extreme aloofness. Maybe this will be his breakout role. Maybe he will prove all of us wrong and show more than one level of emotion. Maybe this is just me pumping myself up to go see the movie (with my mother, who is beside herself with excitement).