Book Review: Water for Elephants

On the heels of NaNoWriMo, I decided to read a book that was published as a result of the NaNoWriMo experience.  Believe it or not, Sara Gruen wrote her bestseller, Water for Elephants, during the competition.  I learned this factoid shortly after starting writing in November, and her success was a bit of an inspiration for me to continue.  And even then, she didn’t actually complete the competition, with “only” 40,000 words of the novel completed at the end of November.

So I read the book after I’d finished writing, and wow, what a story.  To tell you the truth, I wasn’t thrilled about reading about the circus, since I guess I’m just not a circus person.  I never was one of those kids begging to see the circus when it came to town.  But, I was excited to see what a NaNoWriMo novel read like.  

The plot is very simple, it’s the organization that makes it unique.  Gruen interweaves the story of 90-something-year-old Jacob Jankowski with tales of his former life in the circus.  As I’ve learned in my newfound novel writing experience, transitions between times are a booger, but she succeeded in making them coherent and believable, with the slipping sanity of a forgetful old man, dwelling back on his youth.  She also does an incredible job with starting the book at the climax, a different version that leaves a lot of key details ambigious.  When she rewrites it later, she’s revealed the omitted details.  A very clever and effective plot technique.

Jabob joins the circus on accident, after his parents die, and he finds himself unable to complete veterinary school.  The circus performers find him on the train and consider “red lighting” him (throwing him off), which is an illegal practice.  Gruen hints happened frequently in depression era circuses.  The fear of “red lighting” is an ever-present concern through the entire novel.

It’s a love story, of exotic animals and also between two people, facing immense challenges to their romance.  Mix that with all sorts of off the wall acts, and a greedy circus master, and you have all the ingredients for a very compelling novel.

One word of caution here.  My endorsement of this book would be stronger if it weren’t for the graphic, coarse, sexuality interwoven throughout it.  Gruen highlights the dark underbelly of the circus, the side show acts that are only advertised through word of mouth.  These characters and scenes lend some of the more deeply disturbing elements to the story, but they also aren’t necessary for the plot’s success. If you’re sensitive to these sorts of scenes, as I am, I’d suggest skipping any parts involving “Barbara,” with or without her sideshow.

As historical fiction, it seems very trustworthy, as Gruen, in an author’s note at the end, highlights her extensive research into depression era circuses.  I had no idea what sort of acts and brave sacrifices went into producing a complete circus show.

The strongest aspect of this book was its intensity, how it carried you through the chapters, never relenting.  I don’t know if this had something to do with the short period of time in which the author wrote it, allowing for more focus and immersion in the story, but in any case, it’s a book that’s hard to put down.  I, grudgingly, read it in two sessions instead of one because I needed to get to sleep.  Ad, if you do read it, plan on being obsessed for awhile.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I have always come across this book in the book store and debated on buying it. It sounds like a great read, although a bit disturbing! I had no idea that it was from NaNoWriMo though!

    AL: It does have a very intriguing looking cover, doesn’t it?

  2. Did Gruen coach this year’s Nano? I was surprised at the number of published Nano books there are out there.

    AL: I don’t even know what a Nano coach is! Guess I missed out. I never figured out their discussion boards. If you’ve located a list of Nano books, I’d love to see some others that have gotten published.

  3. I appreciate this review of SG’s book. I also learned of it when I was doing Nanowrimo in 2007 and I’ve seen the book everywhere ever since. However, I really do NOT like circuses at all so I just couldn’t get myself to pick it up and read it. I still don’t plan to do that, but I’m glad to know more about it anyway.

    If it makes you feel any better, I completed 50,000 words and haven’t looked at my novel since. But I’ve still got it, safely tucked into a folder, just in case I ever feel the urge to complete it. I think it’s probably about halfway complete at this stage.

    AL: Don’t tempt me! Actually, this accountability thing is going well. So far, I’ve written six thousand more words. I’m determined to finish it. Maybe you can finish another 50,000 of it for the next NaNoWriMo! Congrats on finishing the competition!

  4. I believe the book is a good story… I am sad that so many great authors stoop the the low level of publishing such graphic sexual content. Do we seriously need the pornography? I am the mom of two teens who love to read. I wish books were rated, so at least we as parents would have things just a little easier. A good story entices the reader to finish even if the content is full of filth.


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