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November 28, 2022

Review in Haiku: Water for Elephants

By Katrina Stonoff

Secrets kept still haunt
old man, alone, remembr'ing
years with the circus.



I didn't know Water for Elephants was about the circus, and I might not have read it had I known. I'm not really interested in the circus. That whole "Step Right Up!" clichè leaves me a little cold.

But Water for Elephants isn't about that kind of circus: cotton candy, pretty ladies in spangles, elephants and dancing horses.

Oh, don't get me wrong, all that's there. But that's the circus intended for "rubes." Water for Elephants is the real circus, with alcoholism and filth, a whole different language (redlighting and kinkers), where people worry about literally being thrown from the train.

When the illusion -- the circus spun to enchant you and I -- is stripped away, what you get is Water for Elephants.

But what really won me over is that the "circus" is only the setting in this book. Fascinating, yes, and years and miles from any life I've led. But the story, as all great stories must be, is what happens between a handful of very real people (some noble, some cruel), each with specific driving desires and needs that sometimes confict.

Water for Elephants was recommended on a number of blogs I read, and when I saw Sara Gruen had toured with Joshilyn Jackson, I made a note of the title. Learning later she was a NaNo-winner, I moved the book right to the top of the my stack.

And I'm glad I did. This was a perfect summer read: compelling, suspenseful, filled with characters I loved and hated.

In fact, if I had read Water for Elephants before reading Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, I might have said there was nothing Gruen could have done to improve her book. But alas, no. I read the other first.

Gruen's main character, Jacob, is 91 or 93 (he can't remember, though it doesn't seem to bother him too much). I think he's starting down the slippery slide into Alzheimer's, but it doesn't ring true. Yes, Jacob does flit between the past and the present, but he's always clearly in one or the other. There's no sign of the confusion that goes with early Alzheimer's, where the individual knows when and/or where they are, but things seem off and people are missing.

As Gruen's luck would have it, I just read Madonnas of Leningrad, and that protagonist (also telling her own story in first person point of view) often got confused. Part of the joy in reading Madonnas, in fact, was observing the confusion and the poignant way the protagonist tried to cling to common sense in a world increasingly nonsensical.

Perhaps Gruen isn't writing about Alzheimers at all, in which case this whole discussion is pointless, but it did seem that's what she was hinting about.

Still, despite the Alzheimer's issue, once I got halfway through Water for Elephants, I couldn't put it down. I stayed up reading until I finished it. And tired as I am, that is very high praise, indeed.

You think, from the Prologue, that you know how the story will end, and you do. Sort of. But Gruen throws two startling twists into the end: one shocking, one charming and delightful.

It's not a happy ending, not in a Disneyesque everybody-comes-out-all-right way, but it's a satisfying ending. It ends as it has to (as good literature always does).

Water for Elephants is getting a lot of buzz, most of it from individuals rather than publicity, and you know ... I think I understand why.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-01-15
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