Sunday 2 June 2013

Water For Elephants - Sara Gruen

Title: Water For Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Genre: Historical Romance
Published: 2006
Formats: Hardback/Paperback/Ebook

Available at:
The Book Depository
Amazon UK

As part of the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge I was required to read a New Adult novel which was a label I had never heard of before. After some research I discovered that New Adult fiction is that which utilises protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket and tends to focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality and the negotiation of further education or a career. So after searching a list of New Adult novels on Goodreads I decided to read “Water For Elephants” by Sara Gruen.

The story focuses on Jacob Jankowski whose parents died in the 1930s when he was 23. This tragedy resulted in him dropping out of veterinary school even though he only had one final exam left to complete. He therefore finds himself with no idea of what to and without a penny to his name, and so he jumps onto a passing freight train in the hope it will lead him somewhere new. He gets more than he bargains for however when it turns out the train he has jumped aboard was transporting a circus. Before long Jacob is offered the job as a circus vet and becomes fully involved in the life and politics of the circus. There is violence and cruelty aplenty that Jacob must face in his new life, none of which is helped by his attraction to the wife of an abusive animal supervisor.

One thing I really enjoyed with this novel was the way in which it highlighted circus life as it would have been during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The poverty, brutality, hard work, wonder and even beauty were all portrayed exceptionally well. In addition, I appreciated witnessing some of the way in which the social dynamics functioned during this period, with segregation, racism and the care of the elderly all touched on at various points. I felt that Gruen did exceptionally well in delving into all these elements without making me feel overwhelmed.

Unfortunately the romance elements of the story left a little bit to be desired as I found Marlena, the female love interest to be rather bland and uninteresting. I just couldn’t understand what exactly it was that Jacob found attractive enough to risk both his job or and life for. In addition, the story felt like it was more melodrama than drama which was a bit disappointing to me as I really would have liked to have seen something more real and gritty considering the setting of the story.

To be honest, the rather bland characterisation wasn’t limited to just Marlena and I found many of the characters to be rather one-dimensional which of course resulted in some of the melodramatic feel I mentioned above. For example, August the animal supervisor and Marlena’s husband suffered from being portrayed as the stereotypical mentally ill violent person who was the blatant villain. Then there was Al, the circus owner who was basically a capitalist caricature that only cared about money. I think the only character who added real depth beyond Jacob himself with Walter a cantankerous dwarf who slowly begins to befriend Jacob and reveals that there is a kind and thoughtful person beneath his gruff demeanour.

As a final aside, I would have appreciated some footnotes in regards the elements of the story that utilised polish dialogue. It didn’t stop me following the story but it still would have been nice for me to actually know what was being said.

Overall, despite some of the issues above that I have highlighted I did really enjoy reading “Water For Elephants” as I appreciated the interesting narrative on life within a 1930s circus. However, if you are looking for a decent romance story or clever and realistic drama with complex characters then there is no doubt that you may be disappointed.


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