Sara Gruen – Water for Elephants

English literature major turned technical writer (and Canadian turned American) Sara Gruen was given “two years or two books” by her husband upon being laid off in 2001. He suggested she take the time to do what she’d always wanted to do and write. Her first two published novels, Riding Lessons (Harper Collins 2004) and Flying Changes (Harper Collins 2005), were well-received but not earth-shattering. The novels with their equestrian focus had reviewers dropping Nicolas Evans’s name; this isn’t an unpleasant comparison if you’re looking for book sales, but it didn’t really send the masses out to buy her works.

Gruen’s third attempt finally rocked the literary world (and by literary world, I mean the reading public; it put her on the NY Times Bestseller list.) After the success of Water for Elephants, reprints were run on Gruen’s earlier attempts with huge stickers alerting the browser/reader that the author of Flying Changes and Riding Lessons is the exact same as Water for Elephants. Not only did book sales increase, Gruen’s worth as a writer more than tripled. [Water for Elephants was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (this is the division of Workman that I interned with briefly) after Harpers passed on it. They purchased the manuscript for only $55,000 (according to some sources). The success of the novel has resulted in movie talks and Gruen selling the rights to her next novel, Ape House, (based on a mere 12 page summary) and contracting for a fifth novel for five million dollars. Unfortunately, Gruen did not stay with Algonquin (or Harpers); her fame has pushed her to companies with deeper pockets.]

I picked up Water for Elephants quite a bit ago. I will admit I bought into the hype surrounding it just a bit; both Borders and B&N had it plastered in Staff Picks and Awesome Reads, as well as providing it with prominent placements to push sales (including the irresistible “buy 2 get 1” table). The cover is pleasantly appealing – a man’s sequined back walking into a circus tent with the title in the most perfect of fonts in the center. When I saw Algonquin put it out, I was even more interested. A blurb by King sealed the deal.

The novel opens with a quote from Dr. Seuss: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant… An elephant’s faithful – one hundred per cent.” This is followed by a prologue that introduces Jacob and sets up his love for Marlena (a woman) and Rosie (an elephant) and describes the stampede and murder. This scene actually appears again, later in the book, and provides more detail. The prologue hints that Marlena murdered a man; chapter twenty-two clearly states that Rosie committed the crime. Some critics have argued that Marlena actually commits the crime but that memory, which frames the novel, is unreliable and Jacob retells the story the way he wants to remember it. I think Gruen sets up the prologue and then retells it with more details to trick the reader; as you’re reading the novel, you are rooting for Marlena and you hope she killed her abusive husband – it’s a surprising twist when you read how the mischievous elephant commits murder. There’s no doubt in my mind Gruen really intends for Rosie to be the murderer; the opening quote and information from Gruen about how Rosie is modeled after an elephant who actually killed her trainer combined with Marlena’s size and general inability to commit the murder are all supporting evidence. Authors employ tricks like this all the time and I wasn’t bothered so much by it. I was bothered, however, by the memory frame. I generally do not like novels that are told as memories. I find the narrators unreliable, the current time period parts annoying, and generally think it’s an attempt on the author to extend the plot by adding “filler.” I do not like filler.

The novel is set when Jacob Jankowski is ninety or ninety-three – he can’t remember. He’s in an assisted living facility and he’s a bit of an ornery old man. These chapters feed far too seamlessly into his recollections of his 3 months with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth when he was twenty three. There is no clear audience for his story-telling – sometimes it appears as if he is speaking directly to the reader, other times to a nurse that is not always present during these sessions (a nurse whose name and eyes remind him of his beloved elephant), and sometimes the recollections are just dreams. I loathe this framework and typically associate it with a puff piece author (Nicholas Sparks anyone?) At the end of the novel, he tells the manager of the circus that has set up near the assisted living facility everything that happened in those 3 months – that would have been a much better frame to construct the entire novel around and it would highlight Gruen’s strengths as a writer, which are most obvious in the circus scenes and with her meticulous research.

A quick summary – It is 1931, when at the age of 23, during his final year at Cornell’s vet school, Jacob’s parents are killed in a car wreck. When the estate is settled, Jacob learned his parents took out a mortgage to pay for his education and that his father had been accepting beans and eggs as payment for his services (he was a vet); the bank claimed everything. Jacob attempts to take his final exams, but he is emotionally unable. He starts walking and ends up jumping on a train just to escape. Fortunately (or unfortunately), fate lands him on the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth train and he is hired as the vet. The circus goes from location to location, occasionally cannibalizing shows that have fallen on hard times, getting run out of town because of the cooch tent, and avoiding raids. Jacob falls in love with Marlena, wife of the crazy equestrian director, Augustus. He makes friends with Kinko – Walter – the redheaded dwarf he has to bunk with. (There are some great scenes between the two.) He is nearly raped by two whores but vomits on them. It’s unclear if they were successful in taking his virginity, but since this is such a romantic novel, I’m going to say Marlena was his first and only. Speaking of sex, the actual sex scene is unbelievable as described; Gruen describes it as a woman would, not as a 23 year old virgin man/boy would. Marlena’s husband, Augustus, is a paranoid schizophrenic and violent. The perceived relationship between Marlena and Jacob sends him over the edge. There are fights, animal abuse, sex, strippers, alcohol, toothless lions, and a lemonade & gin loving elephant that only speaks Polish.

Gruen shows real talent as a writer in her descriptions of the circus life, of the freaks, and of the hierarchy between workers and performers. But it’s hard to buy some of what she’s selling; I had difficulty accepting the love/passion between Marlena and Jacob – a passion that essentially is the ruination of the circus and of several lives. Other issues include awkward dialogue, Jacob’s Catholicism (Gruen can’t seem to decide if she wants him to be serious about it or not), Augustus’s paranoid schizophrenia, the sudden unexplained shift in Jacob’s affection for the menagerie, and the previously mentioned framework and difficult to believe minor plots. I don’t mean to be so hard on Gruen, but she shows brilliant potential to be more than a puff piece writer. And I shouldn’t knock puff piece, easy reads; I’m just disappointed. If you want a book that you can swallow in one sitting while hanging out by the beach or the pool, or if you love Sparks and Evans (and lately Kingsolver), pick it up. I won’t judge you – I just hate to see what could have been a fantastic literary work fall short. (I’d love to see it on screen, however.)

I will leave you with what I find to be a fantastic description of the stampede:

“The concession stand in the center of the tent had been flattened, and in its place was a roiling mess of spots and stripes – of haunches, heels, tails, and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellowing, or whinnying. A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact with a llama and knocked it flat – BOOM. The llama hit the ground, its neck and legs splayed like the five points of a star. Chimps screamed and chattered, swinging on ropes to stay above the cats. A wild-eyed zebra zigzagged too close to a crouching lion, who swiped, missed, and darted away, his belly close to the ground.” (3)

Paperback: 350 pages
Publisher: Algonquin (2006)

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