Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

My book club met last night to discuss Water for Elephants. There were probably 12 or 14 people there, and everyone liked the book. Of course, this is a rare occurrence and doesn't make for the best discussions. It's always better when at least somebody hated the book. However, we had a good time, and everyone discussed what they liked best about the book.

Jacob Jankowski recounts his early years traveling with a circus during the Depression as he lives out his last days in a nursing home. Jacob is now 90 or 93 -- he can't really remember. His days consist mostly of waiting. He waits for his meals, which he hates. He dreams of having real food again instead of the bland mush he's served on a daily basis. He waits for his family to visit, which they do every Sunday. It seems as if that's all he has left. But his mind is sharp, and the memories of his days with the circus come flooding back when a big top goes up within sight of the nursing home. The rest of the story is told in flashbacks. Sometimes this technique can be distracting or confusing, but that's not the case with this book. In fact, the shifts in perspective help to deepen the character.

When we first meet Jacob as a young man, he's preparing for graduation from the vet school at Cornell and planning to join his father's veterinary practice. Just as life seems to be falling into place for Jacob, tragedy strikes. His parents are both killed in a car wreck. Things only get worse when he discovers that his father has heavily mortgaged the family home and business to pay for his education. Due to the terrible economy, his father has gotten behind on the payments because people haven't been able to pay him for his veterinary services. Sadly, Jacob realizes he has nothing -- no family, no job, and no home. Jacob attempts to return to school to finish his final exams but simply can't do it. In his despair and confusion, he literally jumps a train one night and ends up staying with the circus.

The descriptions of circus life are fascinating. It was a hard life, especially during the years of the Great Depression. There was often no money to pay the workers, but they had little recourse because there were no jobs to be had anywhere else. There was also a caste system within the circus with the performers at the top and the workers at the bottom. They kept themselves separate when they ate and when they traveled. The workers were crammed into railroad cars while the performers had state rooms and all the amenities. There was also no shortage of cruelty. If someone got too old or too sick to perform his job, he was simply thrown off the train. If he was lucky, the train was stopped when he was 'redlighted'. If not, he was tossed while the train was at full speed.

The book is very well-written, and it's clear that Gruen did her research. I only had a couple small qualms with the book, but they really didn't take away from my enjoyment at all. After finishing the book, I had to go back and reread the prologue to figure out if I had missed something because of the way the climax takes place. I really can't say much else without giving it away. But, if you read it, you'll know what I'm talking about. The ending is also a little unrealistic. However, even with that, I highly recommend this book.


Andi said...

This is probably the most consistently loved book I've heard of in a very long time. EVeryone seems to enjoy it! I can only imagine that I will too, and I need to get off my bum and pick it up already. lol

Joshua Henkin said...

Lisa--Joshua Henkin here, author of MATRIMONY, which was a 2007 NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK and will be coming out in paperback from Vintage at the end of August. I love your blog and would love to send you a free signed copy of MATRIMONY for you to review. Let me know if you're interested. You can reach me at Jhenkin at SLC dot edu.


Joshua Henkin

Lisa said...

andi, I think you'll like it. But I'd be interested to see what you thought about the 'mystery' part of it and the ending.

joshua, thanks so much. I've actually heard some good things about your book. I'd love to review it! I'll email you my contact info.

Lisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
____Maggie said...

Well, I thought she did it, and he was always protecting her, not big gray. Is that crytic enough? I hate to spoil an ending! :)

I ran across a good friend that thought the story unbelievable.

I personally loved it and am hesitant to offer it up as a book discussion, b/c I loved it so. I hate for people to not like a book, and I spend my time during the discussion trying to sway them into changing their minds. Not good behavior as a leader! ;)

Jill said...

Hey! Look at you, getting invites to review books! Good for you! =)

I loved Water for Elephants, especially Rosie!

=) Jill

Lisa said...

maggie, I understand perfectly what you mean -- I don't think that gives it away for those who haven't read it, though. I hesitate to suggest books for the very same reasons. I tend to take it personally when people don't like the books that I love. I know that is silly, but what can I say?

jill, no surprise there -- we really should start keeping count of the number of books that we share the same opinions about. :) I too loved Rosie and felt so sorry for her.

Tara said...

We had the same thing happen at our book club meeting - we all loved it and there was not much to discuss. That's okay though; it rarely happens.

Lisa said...

tara, I think this is actually the first time I can ever remember everyone liking the book.

Andrea said...

This is one of my favorites :-) It really is amazing how many people love this book. I always cringe when I start to read a review of it, thinking they will have something bad to say, but I have yet to come across a negative review.

Lisa said...

andrea, it does seem as if it is well-liked by most everyone. I feel the same way about books that I love. I don't want to read anything negative about them.