Water for Elephants

Continuing in the spirit of “what resonates with readers”… I’ve been thinking about what resonates with readers today — those “hot” book club choices that everyone seems to be reading, but probably won’t stand the test of time and become classics.  I read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen over the weekend and believe this novel qualifies.  I had previously read Riding Lessons by the same author and enjoyed it.  I am always on the look-out for literature about horses, and this novel about a recovering Olympic equestrienne and a mystery brindle was satisfying. 


I didn’t connect the two titles until Water for Elephants arrived (finally!) from the library, and I actually found it more engaging, regarding the plot and characters, than her earlier novel.  I was surprised since I have little interest in the weird, “You Tube”-esque, exhibitionist world of  the circus — my brief stint as a fried vegetables girl at county fairs in Indiana satified any curiosity I might have otherwise had about life on the circuit, and the animal-lover in me shies away from the inevitable scenes of animal cruelty.  But my book club chose Water For Elephants, and it seems to be everywhere right now, so I gave it a whirl. 

While engaging and fast-paced — with a witty and sympathetic main character — I just can’t believe it will become a part of who I am as a reader and as an individual.  Entertaining — yes!  Life-altering — probably not. 

So, I started thinking about WHY Water for Elephants is so popular right now.  It seems that we (book clubbers) love internal conflicts, and in this novel the primary, and most interesting, conflict is within the heart and memory of the main character.  In fact, the external conflicts are a little too “made for t.v.” for me — deranged, un-diagnosed schizophrenic animal handler; beautiful, long-suffering horse acrobat; the performers versus the working men; a misunderstood elephant, etc…  The more interesting elements were within Jacob — a ninety or ninety-three year old man flashing back through the adventures of his life.  The most compelling questions involved identity — how it shifts throughout our life — and how to find value in a life so near its end few others find value in it.   Book clubs are mostly populated by women, for some reason, and women tend to want fiction that focuses on relationships.  So, our “hot” books — anything by Jodi Picoult, The Memory-Keeper’s Daughter, etc… — tend to satisfy that desire.  The more interesting question is why?  Do we want to compare our own relationships to fictional ones?  Or imagine how we would react to a similar situation? Or are we just simply curious about how others spend their time on earth?  In the meantime, I just ordered Flying Changes, Gruen’s sequel to Riding Lessons, and am looking forward to an enjoyable afternoon in the near future…

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9 Responses to Water for Elephants

  1. Anna says:

    I know I sound jaded, but I think marketing (especially to women in book clubs) has everything to do with why a book is so popular right now.
    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Water for Elephants also, but I think that it is a very simple(istic?)story wrapped up in an “exotic” atmosphere. True, I always think it’s cool to think about anyone looking back on their lives. Almost without exception people’s stories are fascinating (I should know, I hear a lot of stories as a hairdresser), but let’s face it: the ending was sheer nonsense, which took away from the suspension of disbelief I had for the rest of the book.
    BUT, who cares? He falls in love, and we get to see it. Yep, we DO want to compare our relationships, and that’s why this book is marketed to US, pretty cover and all.

  2. Kristen says:

    The ending WAS sheer nonsense! I was hoping it would be symbolic or psychological, not literal! Sigh… Interesting that I hadn’t thought about how much the rest of the novel required a suspension of disbelief, too… thanks for a thought-provoking comment!

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  9. Karen says:

    My initial reaction to these comments was that they were correct; it does seem to require a certain amount of “suspension of disbelief” to buy into some of these characters, Jacob’s unusual spate of bad luck, a Polish-speaking elephant, and happily-ever-after. However, after sharing these ideas with the book club that I lead, I found myself confronted with vociferous protests from the members, fans one and all of Water for Elephants.
    “What about Jacob’s bad luck?” I asked, “or come on, a ‘deranged, un-diagnosed schizophrenic’ protagonist who is killed by an elephant? What about Walter and Camel being tossed off the train, and even worse, Jacob and Marlena’s happy-ever-after ending?” For me, that was the really hard part to believe. But the women in the club argued each point:
    “I was married to a ‘deranged, un-diagnosed schizophrenic’ who suffered a similar fate, though he didn’t die…” replied one member.
    “There are a lot of people we know,” said one woman, indicating the other members as a group, “who have no family. No one comes to see them; they never get any mail. So, Jacob’s fate after his parents died is plausible.”
    “As for tossing old men off of trains, many worse things happen every day where I come from,” added another person. And to each of my queries, someone had an answer. It wasn’t impossible that Rosie spoke Polish because this was set during the depression, a time of immigration when people did what they had to in order to survive. Marlena might not have been as beautiful as Jacob described her, but a man in love always sees his beloved through rose-colored glasses, and happily-ever-after?
    “It could happen,” offered one. “But we never really see Jacob and Marlena together, after all the drama. We don’t get to see the day-to-day trials of married life, but clearly Jacob loved her.”
    “And what about picking up and joining the circus at 92 or 93 years old?” I asked, my final attempt to demand some semblance of reality.
    “Charlie O’Brien wants to write a book about him! He’s going to bring him along and write his life story.” This final retort defeated me.
    “Okay. You win. We love it because we all hope there really is a Prince Charming out there for us, and the story and its plot moves us forward—not requiring, necessarily, any suspension of disbelief. I give up, and it’s time for me to leave. Thanks for another stimulating book club discussion. I’ll see you all next week.” And with that, I walked down the stairs, through the security gate and checked out of the Montana Women’s Prison.

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