Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen

I don’t feel cheated, exactly, just let down. I don’t get the over-the-top love for “Water for Elephants.” I probably never will. Sure there’s pros and cons about reviews on Amazon but this fairly new book has already tempted over 1,600 readers to chime in and the verdict is clear. The verdict rests at  4.5 stars. That’s handsome, powerful praise based on a hefty sampling of opinion. The book is still in the Top 100 on Amazon nearly two years since its release.

Everybody who told me to read it (five or six reader friends at least) practically guaranteed enjoyment. Those who recommended the book frequently accompanied the mention of the title with a sigh or a gasp of fondness, like the book had really moved into their hearts.

I ask, how?

As a writer who reads books about writing and attends workshops and goes to conferences, I can tell you that the following samples of imagery from “Water for Elephants” would be considered clunky, not creative:

  • “His eyes drill into Marlena. His temple pulses.”
  • “Flailing my arms like a windmill.”
  • “I blush so hard my scalp prickles.” (To which my mind screamed, “really?)
  • “The roustabouts, once roused, run about like headless chickens.”
  • “I leave though every bone in my body screams against it.”
  • A nurse appears (in the “Mr. Janikowski” sections) who is described as “like an angel from heaven.”
  • Terrain is as “dry as a bone.”

I wish I could report there was a matching, inspiring piece of imagery or thoughtful prose to counter-balance these clichés. I cannot.

Then there’s the chimp named Bobo, the elephant named Rosie, the mean midget, the over-the-top-bad-guy August married to the sweetheart Marlena, who in case we don’t recognize her goodness is constantly surrounded by silk and satin and jewels.

There’s not too much doubt about where the story is going, even from early on. We know Jacob will be successful, despite predictions he won’t last a week. Throughout “Water for Elephants,” I looked for tension and wanted to feel suspense but even as our hero leapt from the roof of one moving train car to the next with his murderous intentions, we know he doesn’t have it in him. (If you’ve made it through the scene where Rosie takes “action” on behalf of Jacob and Marlena, or so we are led to believe, you’ll reach this train-car-hopping scene.)

Any good things here? Sure, the period detail. Spending time in this era and with these characters was not entirely unenjoyable. (Yes, that’s what you call faint praise.) Sara Gruen has been widely praised for her research and terminology, but David McCullough probably won’t be calling soon to add anyone to his staff. The tidbits and pieces of circus history here are sprinkled into the backdrop and conversation. The references pop up like little sign posts that wave “look at me, I’m history.” They don’t flow naturally into the story.

scenes-such as Lucinda’s funeral and the long strip-tease scene at the beginning. To what end?

In the end, the good things about the book were buried under the weight of the not-so-good. I left feeling like I’d been chewing on something tempting and sweet but ultimately unsatisfying, like cotton candy.

What gives? I’d love to know.

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