Water for Elephants sat on my reading list for a while. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to read a book about a circus. They aren’t my favorite setting, and the fact that my mother was taking forever with her copy helped cement my decision to wait on reading it for a more suitable time. What a shame I waited. Water for Elephants is unexpectedly complex, proving to be a more compelling story than what I originally expected.
Gruen structured Water for Elephants in an interesting way. The book starts off with the protagonist, Jacob, in a nursing home in ; he is in his nineties. Then she pulls us through several chapters that take place in the early 1930s, followed by another chapter with Jacob as an old man. In the copy that I read, the chapters involving young Jacob have a picture of circus life in the thirties before it — some were from the Ringling Brothers museum in Florida, and others were from the circus museum in Wisconsin. I liked this touch; it gave me a good clue as to when the following chapter occurred, plus I got to see some pretty cool photographs.
Jacob is not a perfect man, which is another thing I like about Water for Elephants. He is frequently cowardly, even though he knows what the correct action is, and I think this is an accurate portrayal of a young, college-age man. He doesn’t know how to assert himself to protect those he cares about effectively. He needs the help of others in order to have the courage to do the right thing. Even as an old man, he’s prone to saying things that hurt others and being reactionary, which prevents him from forming lasting relationships with the other people in his retirement facility.
Jacob has two most obvious failings. The first is falling in love with another man’s wife. Marlena is a performer in the circus, controlling horses and, eventually, Rosie the elephant. Her husband, August, is the manager of the menagerie. He makes a case for hiring Jacob, who almost finished training as a veterinarian. The man is his boss and seems to genuinely like him. Unfortunately, Jacob becomes infatuated with Marlena, and it’s a mutual feeling. Rather than finding ways to distance himself from her, he pursues a rather odd courtship with her. This is not the way to treat a man who has taken you under his wing.
Jacob’s second failing is his inability to protect those he loves. He doesn’t stand up for Rosie when she is abused by August. After sustaining a concussion, he was rescued and nursed by his roommate, Walter. Jacob then, knowing that Walter is in danger, still chooses to pursue a revenge plot, leaving Walter alone and vulnerable. He is only partially successful in keeping Marlena safe while she is married to August.
For some reason, Jacob’s failings, rather than being overwhelmingly annoying, convince me that he is a real person. My experiences as a college-age adult are similar. I’m more assertive now, and I imagine I’ll become even more-so in the future. I’m also less indecisive. Jacob mirrors my own feelings and fears while I was that age, and thus he feels authentic to me.
The one thing I thought was not so great was the depiction of August. Toward the end of the book, we are told by Uncle Al, the amoral owner of the circus, that he is a paranoid schizophrenic. They put up with it, he says, because August is so brilliant. I have a hard time with this, mainly because the description of August’s behavior are more those of a person with bipolar disorder. Yes, he’s paranoid, but he in no way is depicted as hearing voices or having serious delusions. He doesn’t make many irrational decisions or actions. I dislike this confusion; people with schizophrenia behave in a different way than how August behaves. The two mental disorders are not interchangeable.
Water for Elephants is an excellent book with a unique setting and a compelling story. Gruen has a gentle writing voice that is very pleasant to read. I’d definitely read something else written by her. Her adept exploration of how a young adult approaches life makes me eager to see how she will treat other stages of life.