Book 3 in Cannonball Read 2
Water for Elephants is the kind of book that has tons of cliched characters, rushes some of the central relationships, and seems completely implausible - but somehow it works. It does not get up to the level of greatness, but it is likeable and readable.
The bulk of the novel is set during the Great Depression, and the main character, Jacob, is about to finish veterinary school when his parents die. The bank forecloses on the house, he can’t finish his exams, so he runs away and joins the circus. No, really, that’s what happens, and I rolled my eyes then, and a few other times - like when Jacob’s roommate, Kinko, goes from hating him to being his friend because Jacob did one nice thing for him; the characterization of August, the circus’ animal trainer, as an abusive asshole who doesn’t care about anything (his abuse is signaled by the way he treats the animals, and there is no way to telegraph a characters evilness that is easier than making him an animal abuser); the way that Marlena, August’s wife, falls for Jacob for no other reason than that he is there, and he is a nice guy; and lots of other details of the plot and characterizations.
The novel does work, despite these cliches. A big part of this for me, was the dual structure - the novel is told in flashback by a 90+ year old Jacob in a nursing home. These scenes take up a small part of the novel, but paint a compelling picture of the loss of autonomy that comes with aging, and the way that memory can be elusive and vague. I can’t make up my mind about the way the novel reveals what you think is the ending, but then pulls a bit of a bait and switch on what really happened - whether it was clever, or just trying to be clever and ending up too cute.
I mentioned earlier that Marlena falls for Jacob for no apparent reason, and that still stands as the novel’s most perplexing flaw. The other cliches work somehow - you find August scary, you find Kinko and Jacob’s friendship believable despite its’ shaky basis - but I really could not get my head around Marlena and Jacob’s relationship. SPOILER - although I can understand Marlena initially being drawn to someone who is nicer than her husband, they remain married for many decades until her death, so something had to be there that was just not in the novel; I guess it’s possible that, back in the day, women just married - and stayed married to - any decent guy, rather than expecting any sort of specialness about their relationship.
It’s a decent book. I can’t quite give the glowing recommendation that some friends and family have given, but even the cliches work, so Gruen must be doing something right. In the end, Water for Elephants may be a bit more complex in structure than it needs to be to tell the story, but the story that’s there is good, and deals mostly with fine, upstanding people struggling to do right against evil, mustache-twirling villains - in other words, it’s easy to identify with the protagonists and hate the bad guys. That scheme is a bit too simple to make a great book, but it does make for a good one.