Saturday, July 4, 2009

Water for Elephants

Proposed alternate title:  Death by Elephant
Water for elephants cover
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I read this book for an online bookclub, I Read Therefore I Am.  At first I had numerous misgivings.  For one, there's no summary on the back cover.  What was I getting myself into?  For another, the main character was old.  I've seen enough movies to know what happens when there's a old person--someone is going to die. O.O  Probably the old person.

But I persevered (and peeked at the last page--I know, I'm a terrible person), and I'm glad I did.  You know that feeling when a book pulls you into a completely different world?  Well, this book does that--and the world it sucks you into is a traveling circus during the Great Depression.  Jacob, the main character, has a mini-nervous breakdown during his finals at Cornell, and on a whim, hops a train in the middle of the night.  It turns out to be the train of the Bernini Brothers Circus; and fortunately for Jacob, one of the workers takes a shine to him and gets him a job with the show. 

This book has great storytelling, great characters, and non-stop action.  The world of the circus is fascinating--it offers freedom and adventure, but is also harsh and fragile.  If a person can't cut it on the road anymore, they are not politely fired; they're redlighted--aka thrown from the train in the middle of the night.  If you're lucky, you get tossed near a train station; if you're not lucky, you get flung off a bridge.  It actually reminded me a lot of the world of the ship in Master and Commander, in that it is extremely insular and one man keeps (or at least attempts to keep) the balance of all the parties intact--in this case, Uncle Al, the show's owner.

This book doesn't really conform to one particular genre and I think would appeal to a broad range of people.  The only thing I absolutely did not like at all was Jacob's "romance" with Marlena.  Uhg, I hated Marlena!  HATE HER.  She spends half of the book crying and the other half snivelling; and then every bad thing that happens is practically her fault.  How in the name of god Jacob could find her even remotely attractive is mystifying to me--but she is the only significant female character in the book, so it's not as if he had a lot of women to chose from.  There are also some loose ends to the story, but they're kind of incidental.

This isn't a perfect book, but it is really good.  I would recommend Water for Elephants to just about anyone.

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