Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants

by Jess

I read Water for Elephants in just a few days.  It’s a prime example of the much-touted “fast read” that Laura Miller talks about in her Salon essay “Why We Love Bad Writing.”  But it’s not that Water for Elephants is poorly written; it’s just not that good.  There are plenty of rave reviews of the book, and there are a few disgusted ones, and then there are loads of reviews that begin like this one that I found on Goodreads: “Just boo. That’s my review. Boo. Not a loud boo, or an emphatic boo, just your average boo.”

I liked the quirky antics of the Depression era railroad circus — like the elephant that pulls its stake out of the ground and drinks all the lemonade right before showtime, so they strain the animals’ trough water and make more lemonade with it — but maybe because many of them are true stories that Gruen discovered in her research.  That just leaves the characters, the plot, and the dialogue that I didn’t care for.

Jacob Jankowski is the protagonist, and in the first few pages he goes from being a carefree veterinary student and beloved only child to a homeless, orphaned circus worker.   His character arc is interesting because he’s naive (quite: he’s always asking other characters to clarify their carnie talk, which is such an artless way of letting the reader learn what’s happening) and moderately likable at the beginning, but he turns into a bit of a Raskolnikov as the story progresses.  He’s dark and brooding and obsessed with murdering a man so he can steal his wife, Marlena, who is a circus performer and the object of so much passion, but inexplicably so, as she is also terribly dull and flat.

I found the romance between Jacob and Marlena uninteresting and the friendships Jacob strikes up with various circus workers equally unconvincing.  Like I said, Jacob is moderately likable, but only just; more often, he’s charmless and ungrateful.  He’s found himself suddenly orphaned and penniless, and there’s no reason in the world why so many of the carnies, who half the time aren’t even getting paid, would risk their jobs for this nobody, during the Depression no less.

The plot is intercut with scenes of present-day Jacob in a nursing home throwing his food and making life hell for the nurses.  Gruen does a sympathetic job with the travails of old age, and present-day Jacob might make an interesting enough story in its own right, but as written, it interferes entirely too much with the flow of the backstory.  I think the story would have been better served by beginning the novel with Jacob in the nursing home to set up the narrative frame, but not cutting back to his static and depressing and repetitive nursing home life every few chapters.

I wouldn’t recommend this one.  If you’re looking for a romance, or a circus tale, or historical fiction about the Depression, or even just a well-crafted story, there are better books.