Sara Gruen's story, Water for Elephants, takes readers back to the Great Depression, circus style! Alright, so it isn't all fun and games, as it might sound. Gruen bluntly relays the cruelties and ugliness of the circus during the Great Depression, and not just to the animals.
Told by a male protagonist, Jacob, in extreme old age (90 plus years, he can't remember exactly), a story of horror, romance and grief unfolds. Reeling from the death of his parents, Jacob drops out of Cornell and runs off to join the circus, sounds like a familiar plot, right? However, this circus is one of odds and ends gathered from dying circuses around the country. In the Great Depression, money for entertainment is not readily available, making circuses a dying cause that era. Jacob quickly falls in love, the catch? She's married to a man who possibly has bi-polar (my own diagnosis after analyzing his erratic behaviors) and shows immense cruelty to both humans and animals alike. Enter Rose, the elephant. A smart and mischievous and therefore utterly lovable elephant who quickly becomes the center of the story. With a violent climax, Gruen tries for the big reveal ending, which worked for some according to a couple of girls in my book club, but for me I predicted it halfway through the book.
Added to the blunt realities of the circus, Gruen does not shy away from Jacob's confinement in the "old folks home." Written with stark realism and contrasted with Jacob's younger years of freedom and independence, Jacob's present life in the home is depressing and extremely well written. I actually liked the chapters of Jacob in the home better than the exciting flashbacks because of how well written they were and also for the fact that it's easy to make a story about the circus interesting, but to make chapters about an old man sitting around in an old folks home interesting, now that's good writing. I was touched by those chapters and found extraordinary understanding and compassion in Gruen's writing. And not that I'd culturally ever do so anyways (Asian cultures tend to take care of their own elderly with reverence and respect), but I know for sure now that I'd never let my mother's feet touch the floor of any nursing home.
I wasn't exactly sure of Gruen's purpose of making the story a flashback, however. A mutual consensus of the book club was that there wasn't a "bigger meaning" easily gleaned from this book. The best I can come up with is a comparison between freedom and confinement in many different contexts. First, with Jacob having the freedom of running off to the circus with his whole life ahead of him and then contrasting that with the confinement of a nursing home where he's not even allowed to use his walker without permission. Also, the confinement of the animals and later their freedom which reeks havoc on the circus. And also the illusion of freedom with the circus folks, although many of them were trapped in the circus due to their unusual appearances or out of fear of being redlighted. And of course Marlena's confinement in an emotional and verbally abusive marriage, when she'd thought she was freeing herself from a boring and tedious marriage when she ran off with August. This does seem like the most consistent theme in the novel, however it did not strike any "aha!" cords in me or move me deeply in any way. More so, this book seemed like a light, enjoyable summer read (despite the cruelty in the book). The ending felt a little bit too convenient and tied up with a pretty red bow, and some of it was not so much believable to me, but it was fine because by the end I didn't expect huge aspirations for the book. It was more of a good story just for good stories sake, and that's just fine by me. The characters were memorable and the story was interesting.
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