Friday, 26 August 2011

Book Club - Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Much delayed but as promised, here's a review of one of my holiday reads, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

The novel begins with 23 year old Jacob Jankowski preparing to take his final exams as a veterinary student, when he receives the devastating news that his parents have been killed in a car accident. Soon after Jacob suffers an emotional break down and abandons University before he is able to graduate.

He jumps a train in the darkness of night, only to discover later it belongs to The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. When the circus manager, Uncle Al, learns of Jacob's veterinary training he is hired to care for the circus animals. It is then that Jacob meets the beautiful performer Marlena and her charming but dangerously temperamental husband August.

The prose cuts between the months following his arrival at the circus and Jacob as an elderly man. These cuts are almost seemless, and added another dimension to an already exciting novel; though I did find the focus on the older Jacob less enthralling.

The theme of circus has never been one that appealed to me. Yet, Gruen's descriptions and dialogue create a magical, enchanted world that left me full of intrigue.There is also a sense of honesty to the writing. Gruen makes the reader aware that the circus of 1950s America was not all magic but a world of trickery, illusion and at times, even cruelty.

The writing is powerful, with a surprisingly uplifting sense of sentimentality - my eyes filled with tears within the first 30 pages. However, there is also humour in the novel, often in the most unexpected places. The drama was constant and absorbing, though I do wonder if there was too much to contain within the narrative and due to this some developments in the plot felt rushed and forced. For example, the romance between Jacob and Marlena.

Though an easy and enjoyable read, Gruen dealt with some serious themes including diseases of the mind, identity, animal cruelty and treatment of the elderly. These themes are incorporated into the plot of the novel so intelligently that they do not disrupt the flow of the story, yet are unmissable. There is a brilliantly varied cast of characters and friendships are developed beautifully through the prose. The ending is unexpected and original, though perhaps slightly abrupt.

I also found Gruen's author's notes particularly interesting to read. Discovering where the inspiration for the novel came from and what she learnt during her research gave fascinating insight to the novel as a whole.

I'm particularly keen to now see the film adaptation and can picture Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattison as well cast for the roles. I imagine the splendor of the circus will be conveyed even more spectacularly on screen and will be rather breath-taking to watch. Overall, this is an original, sad, hopeful and quick moving piece of fiction.

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