Week 17–Water for Elephants

This novel has been on my list for quite some time, but not owning it caused me to put it off for too long. Last weekend I saw the movie with my mother, and decided immediately afterward that I could no longer put off reading the novel.  The movie was fantastic, and the book was even better. Thankfully, though there were obviously changes and omissions in order to consolidate the movie into two hours, it was an absolutely brilliant adaptation. They managed to convey the excitement, magic, suspense, and tragedy of the novel without compromising plot or character.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=Bibliograph07-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=1565125606&fc1=F3EDED&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=040404&f=ifrWater for Elephants tells the story of Jacob Jankowski from two different times in his life.  In the present, he is a man in his nineties who has been abandoned to a nursing home by his family.  When a circus comes to town and sets up shop in the parking lot across from his facility, Jacob relives the memories of his own life in the circus.  Most of the novel consists of his recollection of the summer of 1931, when Jacob loses both of his parents to a car accident and his home to the bank.  He jumps a train, unaware that it is the caravan of the Benzini Brothers circus.  Here he meets Marlena, the immediate love of his life, and Rosie, a willful yet gentle elephant who becomes the circus’ star attraction.  The novel is not without its villains, for Jacob’s bosses, August and Uncle Al, both have volatile tempers and are unscrupulous about chucking men off trains if they create trouble or outlive their usefulness.  August, of course, stands between Jacob and Marlena, and also is extremely abusive to Rosie.  As events escalate and become more dangerous, Jacob must decide whether to run away and save himself, or fight for his new found friends and love.

There are two things that set this novel apart from others in its genre.  First is a lack of complex introspective monologues.  A great many novels being published and circulating today, and topping the bestsellers lists, are full of deep and tangled thoughts on the part of the protagonist.  He or she has a mind full of unique metaphor and can fill pages with thoughts on any occurrence: from a flower on a tree to a profoundly moving and emotional event.  Water for Elephants is not like this.  Jacob Jankowski’s thoughts are straightforward and therefore easy to understand.  They are not painful to read, and they do not cause hitches in the plot. Despite not attempting to explore the deepest places of the human mind and soul, this novel is still a fantastic and thoughtful work, dedicating more attention to plot and character than to introspection and commentary.        

The second thing that sets this novel apart is that it ends, and ends happily. It seems as though every novel that is written and published in the present must be one of two things: open-ended–in which the reader isn’t really sure what happens, because the book is really a blip in a person’s life story, and therefore must not end until the character’s life ends–or deeply tragic, in which everyone (or at least the important characters) must die. This, perhaps, is an attempt to break away from the formula of novels past, which often, if not always, delivered a nicely wrapped conclusion with all ends tied up and everyone at least somewhat satisfied.  However, because seemingly every novelist for the past century attempts to “break away from the pattern,” a new pattern has been created–if a book has a happy ending, it’s light and fluffy chick-lit.  Gruen defies this pattern, and writes a magnanimous, beautiful book that explores both sides of human nature, good and bad, gives an entire picture, and yet ends happily.

I highly recommend this book to both males and females.  I truly believe that any sort of person can enjoy it. It’s an adventure of a unique sort, with a wide variety of characters and a setting which is at once dangerous and dazzling.  Gruen’s portrayal of human kindness, gentleness, compassion, love, and self-sacrifice is heartwarming, and her depictions of greed, lust, betrayal, fear, and brutality are accurate and believable enough to make the novel as far from “fluff” as possible.  It is brimming with emotion and suspense, and I truly believe there are few people who would not enjoy it.


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