Oddly enough, the most persuasive recommendation I received for Water for Elephants—the circus-themed love story whose movie adaptation stars Reese Witherspoon and sparkly manpire Robert Pattinson himself—came from a marine. During a visit to NYC in May, a high school friend of mine, only recently back from a year in Afghanistan, was scouring my bookshelves when he stopped on H2OFE and exclaimed his appreciation for it. Granted, one’s standards for entertainment are probably different after a few months of living in a tent surrounded by sand, but I thought it only patriotic to abide by the glowing endorsements of the armed forces. (After just a few minutes of mockery.)
I am, it’s worth noting, probably the last person on the planet to read Water for Elephants. For one, I’ve never been a big fan of historical fiction. But the paperback’s super melodramatic cover also discouraged me from carrying it around on the L train, amid all the New Yorker subscribers and casual readers of ancient philosophy. And mustaches.
Not one to shy from my mistakes, I’ll be the first to admit that Water for Elephants is about as good as my marine friend—and the novel’s bestseller status—suggest. Set in the 1930s, it follows protagonist Jacob Jankowski who runs away from home to (inadvertently) join the circus. While there, he meets Marlena, the beautiful ..horse lady performer (?), who is married to August, the seemingly schizophrenic animal trainer. Jacob obviously falls in love with Marlena, August obviously figures it out, and a fairly predictable narrative ensues, amid a thoroughly researched portrait of circus life in the heyday of Ringling Brothers, when circuses still came to people by train and no one had ever heard of a $14.99 plastic souvenir cup.
Also, there’s an elephant.
Portrait is an apt word for what author Sara Gruen does in
H20FE. Marlena and August are developed-enough characters, but it’s their environment that makes the novel strong. In a Q&A at the end of the paperback (sparkly-vampire-cover version), Gruen talks about being inspired to write the book by a photograph of a circus from the 30s, and the subsequent research she did to make the novel accurate, everything from diligent library visits to face time with an actual elephant. She also reveals that many of the anecdotes in the novel—my favorite is the story of a circus that kept their dead hippo in formaldehyde until they could get a new one—are “true,” which is to say they supposedly happened in real circuses.
All of Gruen’s research—by no means required in a book whose primary audience is reading for the love story—pays off, and it’s not hard to see why H20FE was swiftly adapted for the silver screen. Even the novel’s weaker points—the inherently less exciting scenes of Jacob as an old man—only serve to highlight the drama of the circus itself.
Of course, it would be silly of me to pretend H20FE is anything other than what it is: a somewhat cliche story of star-crossed lovers. Which is okay—ain’t no shame in that game—and to be expected. It’s not like I thought Witherspoon and Pattinson were talking politics in that cover photo. Stories like that are inherently escapist (unless you’ve personally experienced star-crossed loverdom) and the added fun of one taking place in a different time period and such unique circumstances makes H20FE escapist in the extreme. Which does, now that I think about it, make it rather perfect for reading in a tent, surrounded by sand.
Perhaps the best testament to the type of book Water for Elephants is: I finished it in three days. And that’s not three days of dedicated reading; that’s in between work and drinking and sleeping and watching approximately 800 hours of The X Factor. H20FE is a quick and compelling read, intricate in its detail without being overly dense in style. It does suffer a bit from being predictable, and I would argue the last 50 pages (without giving anything away) wrapped things up a bit too neatly for my taste. But when one of your main characters is a circus elephant, I suppose one doesn’t need to jump through hoops to make the rest of the plot unique. Moreover, I love the idea that this book was born of curiosity on the author’s part, and that the plot in some ways became the backdrop to the actual backdrop, which ultimately dominates the novel. So if you’ve got a few days to spare, and/or happen to be stuck in Afghanistan, and/or want to prove to your girlfriend that you can “totally read emotional stuff and not just comic books and porn,” pick up Water for Elephants. …But if you ride the L train, try to get the version with the other cover.
TITLE: Water for Elephants
AUTHOR: Sara Gruen
PAGES: 331 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Riding Lessons, Ape House
SORTA LIKE: Moulin Rouge meets Dumbo
FIRST LINE: “Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me and the fry cook.”