Beth's Reviews > Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
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really liked it
bookshelves: 2008, historical-fiction, general-fiction, i-reviewed-this-bad-boy

Just to put it out there, I’ll admit straight off the bat that I’m one of the people who enjoyed this book. It was a fast read (which I always appreciate, because I’m perpetually drowning in a list of books TBR) and it was fairly easy to get through. I also didn’t see the end coming until a few pages before it actually happened, which probably added immensely to my enjoyment factor.

I’ve been reading all the criticisms of this book in an attempt to organize my opinions after reading this book. It seems like most of the complaints have to do with cruelty to humans and animals in the story and the sex scenes sprinkled throughout Jacob’s experience with the circus.

I do not feel that the sex described in these books was inappropriate or gratuitous. In all instances (namely Barbra’s strip scene, Jacob’s deflowering with the circus prostitutes and the scene where he and Marlena finally made love), these descriptions helped to move the plot and create human experiences and reactions, which is what makes a book worth reading. Very few of us who will ever read this book can say that we were involved in a Depression-era circus, however, must of us has some concept or experience of our own with sex. In the case of this book, I feel that the sex in the book permits us to draw a parallel to these characters that we might otherwise never identify with (because they are truly from another world).

I won’t lie. There were several uncomfortable scenes where Rosie the elephant was brutally beat by August, and I cringed during those scenes. I was also extremely discomfited by the scenes where the big cats were fed rotting meat and other circus animals. The instances of redlighting were also appalling.

However, this is because I am 29-years-old. I was born in 1979. Not 1929. That time in American history is FOREIGN to me. FOREIGN, FOREIGN, FOREIGN. It’s hard for me to fathom sometimes that people actually had experiences like that so recently in the past. I have a grandmother who is 101-years-old. My father is 73-years-old. To listen to them describe life when they were my age is mind-blowing to me, because some of the stories they tell me fall into the same category of shock that I felt while reading this story.

My 87-year-old grandmother has told me stories about going to their family’s beach house in the summers and how her mother would lock her inside the house whenever the Chicago gangster’s had committed a big heist (there were several who would spend time in Minnesota and Wisconsin) while they were waiting for things to cool down. My father has stories about chasing trains and jumping on them to go for a ride out of boredom.

And so it’s my opinion that sex and animal cruelty were not the themes of the story and that to get hung up on them means missing out on something bigger. Life was different then, so we can’t apply our same logic to those events and have them still make sense. They were tangential ideas peppered throughout the story to support the actual point of the story, which I felt had to do with the aging of a human being.

The fact that the story was not just ABOUT the circus supports this. If the story was ABOUT the circus, there would have been no need to include details about Jacob as a 93-year-old man. Or to share conversations he has with the nurses in the assisted living home and with the other patients.

Aging is a very real, very human experience that none of us can escape. Even if someone dies as a young person, they won’t escape the issues that come with aging because there are people in our lives who WILL age and we will be there to witness it. I’ve already seen grandparents go through that transformation of a vital, independent adult to an old, frail being that needs help with even the most basic of a function, who can’t remember names of family members and who eventually dies.

The drastic comparison between Jacob’s life at the assisted living center and his flashbacks to his time spent at the circus give an extremely compelling glance at the passage of time and how it affects us all.

Now, all that being said. There were several instances of the author’s “modern voice” creeping in. The one that bothered me most was the reference to August’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. In 1933? Um, nope. It wasn’t recognized as a legitimate disease or even named until the 70’s (I think, which was when my oldest brother was diagnosed with it. If they’d known more about it at the time, he might be better off today, but there just wasn’t enough information or research available, even in the late 70’s).
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Reading Progress

July 15, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
August 6, 2008 – Finished Reading
August 7, 2008 – Shelved as: 2008
October 2, 2008 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
October 28, 2008 – Shelved as: general-fiction
June 24, 2010 – Shelved as: i-reviewed-this-bad-boy

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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Marlene You wrote your review so much better than I. I have been reading the negative comments and have been surprised how many refer to this as a love story. I was glad to see your take on it being about aging, as that is how I saw the book. I saw it as this old man's life and it was the beginning of the book where he is describing his feelings about being in "the home" that really drew me into the book. For me, the story was all about Jacob.

Beth I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees it that way. After I finished the book I read some reviews and was a little shocked by the things people got hung up on. I was like, really?!? Did we even read the same book?!?

message 3: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen I didn't read your full review because I feared spoilers. There is an option for reviews to have an alrert for spoilers, please use it if you are review in such great depth. I love to read such reviews after I have read a book so I appreciate where you were going with it. Thanks

Terri Sinclair I just stopped reading this book because I was enjoying it SO MUCH I wanted to savor it. I'm traveling next week cross country and thought this will make a wonderful book to read in flight. Now, after reading some of the reviews I'm worried! I guess I'll take a back up book just in case although you're review is giving me some hope. I've loved the first three chapters. I love the dialouge - although there are so many complaints of the prose...weird. I had no expectations - had no idea what the book was about and can't really remember why I bought it a couple of years ago. I didn't finish your review because of the spoilers but you've given me HOPE that I'll be occupied for the almost 8 hours of traveling next week!

Pammie I thank you for seeing in this book what I saw, the aging of Jacob and his looking at his life. I loved how the book moved back and forth from his youth to his old age. I did not read the reviews until I had finished the book and was amazed at how many people only saw the circus life and not the man. I will never look at older people the same way they all had lives and loves and experiences that only they can tell us about,

message 6: by Jen (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jen Ifer's Inklings Beth- I always love reading your reviews. I seek them out to compare what I thought of the book, and most of the time, we are very similar. Although, I didn't see this as a story about aging, but as a story about life. I listened to this as an audio book, which was amazing. It was read by two different people, so the voice of the old man, was just that.

Like you, I was horrified by some of the scenes. But, again, that was life then. Those things DID happen in the circus in the 20s/ 30s. These are reasons the circus life has such a poor reputation, even today. How could you tell the story of Jacob's life without showing the horrible stuff he witnessed?

I also don't understand what people are calling spoilers in your review. Nothing you mentioned was a spoiler at all. /shrugs.

Pammie I thank you for the incredible review you wrote, I think I got this book like you as a look at both life and aging and that it was from a time we can only imagine.
Thank you for doing such a great job.

Lainie Beth, thank you for this thoughtful review, which shows intelligence and, by the way, real skill in writing. I'll be looking for your reviews in the future.

SuperSteph Love your review of this book. I think you read my mind:)

message 10: by Betty (new) - added it

Betty Wright I feel the same way,these people who look down on "water for elephants" probably didn't open their hearts to it, as we did.In all fairness the beginning is some what,slow.But in order to truly empathise with the characters you have to look beyond the first few chapters.if your reading water for elephants and your not enjoying it...hang in there ok, keep reading it gets much better x

message 11: by Alyx (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alyx You hit the nail on the head with this review. I had to read this book for a psychological aspects of aging course because the book focused so much on the aging process as you describe in your review.

message 12: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Your review is bang on and says pretty much everything that I feel about this book. I'm not finished yet and want to savour it. I could read it in a day and have decided that I've got to read the rest of this author's books. I am really surprised at peoples' negative reactions to the book, especially about how Jacob in his 90s does not have a realistic level of maturity or whatever for his age: in her late eighties my grandmother once confided in me that she sometimes felt the way she did in her teens and was sometimes shocked at her age and after what she lived through, I was amazed that she could she wasn't "old" like some old people I've known. Yeah, and I've heard crazy things about the olden days - and us youngsters don't have a clue about what went on back then. Foreign is right.

message 13: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Treatment for schizophrenia In the 1930s was insulin shock therapy and insulin coma therapy. They actually did know what it was.

I must say that I was expecting the elephant beating to be much worse - so much so that when I got past that part I was surprised that that was it. Rooks have always treated animals terrible, now it's just less acceptable... Not that I'm condoning it at all.

message 14: by Dayna (new)

Dayna Your review is very insightful.

Rebecca T I’m quite late to the game on this book, but I’m so glad someone else sees the subtly and nuances that many of the other reviews miss. It’s not about the circus. It’s not about the squeamish scenes. It’s not even about all the other characters. It’s about Jacob, and we see all those other things through the lens of his memory. He’s 93; of course certain things like fleshing out minor characters will be lacking. He can only talk about what he remembers best: his own perception and experience of the circus and its people and animals. I’m glad to have found your review.

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