Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants fits well with my recent obsessions with NaNoWriMo and the way our reading changes as adults. It’s a well-written and well-plotted book, with sentences that are well-crafted in a quiet way. On a sentence by sentence level, nothing in this book jumps out; nothing made me reach for my pencil to underline or write in the margins.

And this sort of quiet quality of craft is, I think, one of the things I most liked about the book. I’d been avoiding reading it for years, having rather rashly (and totally inaccurately) declared it a “girl book” that I had no interest in. Something about knowing it was written in part during NaNoWriMo, and something about the cover (which, after reading it, does not appear remotely “girly”), maybe even that it was written by a woman, turned me off from the book. I can easily rebut all these stupid misconceptions I had about the book now that I’ve read it, and I’m a little worried by what these things say about me. Like, for one, that even though I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, I instinctively assume that anything written even in part during the month of November is of low quality, if not utterly unreadable. And that, despite considering myself a feminist, I would assume a book of literary fiction written by a woman would be a “girl book” that I, reader of Hemingway and Nabokov and Charles Portis, would not be interested in.

These things aside, Gruen handily smashed all my misconceptions and I’m now eager to read more of her books, possibly even those that I can only get by paying $10 for a Kindle copy. The depth of her research is stunning; the world Gruen writes about, that of a traveling circus during the Great Depression, is so fully and carefully drawn that I don’t doubt the truth of any of it. (Talking in an honest-to-god, “is this really what it was like?” kind of way and in the sense of the truth of the story.) Gruen manages to take this almost archetypal idea of running away to the circus, which today is more a joke than anything, and turns it into both the opening and closing of this book. And much of her skill lies, I think, in how she manages to take events, like running off to the circus, that are in their very nature ridiculous, and make them believable and serious. When Gruen writes about a character being sold to the circus as a teenager, or running away to the circus in search of love and adventure, or landing at a circus to escape the inescapable realities of becoming an orphan (as does the narrator, Jacob), she does so with a confidence and depth of insight into the characters that I never thought to question.

The novel (and I am probably the last English-speaking person on earth to read this, so you all know already) mainly focuses on the world of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, but every few chapters flips to Jacob’s present day, in which he is a 93-year-old man living in an assisted living home. Gruen develops this world just as well as she does the world of the circus; I wouldn’t say she writes about this aged version of Jacob with sympathy, but rather with empathy and, again, honesty. Having spent a fair amount of time in nursing homes, I was amazed by the way Gruen was able to take an archetypal nursing home character (the crotchety, angry old man, yelling about his food, his company, his family’s irregular or too regular, “like clockwork,” visits) and turn him into a real person, with clear and understandable reasons for acting as he does. Jacob’s palpable frustration at being treated like a child after over 90 years of building a life and enviable collection of stories propelled me through the story of his first months on the circus. I kind of knew where he would end up, but to learn how he would get there – that had me charging through this book in a way I haven’t done in a while. And from this sense of frustration, which Gruen shades throughout the book, the actions of 93-year-old Jacob at novel’s end manage to be, again, entirely believable despite reading, in summary, as completely and 100% ridiculous.

How did Gruen manage this? And how did she manage all this without providing any clues, in her writing, as to how she managed this? Gruen isn’t a showy writer, and it’s only now as I look back on the novel that I realize how many things she did that required real skill of writing and character development.

Sometimes I doubt that there are many contemporary books out there that are pleasing for both their plot and their stylistic elements, or that can get me back to reading, a little bit, like I did as a kid – without stopping to reread lines and think about what they “mean,” really – but Water for Elephants gives me hope that they’re out there. Any other books like this that you would recommend – that are maybe defined as “literary fiction” but that are populated by real plots, as well as “real” people?



This was one of those books that when I read it, I couldn’t believe how much I would love it! It snuck up on me and it definitely made me cry! I’m glad you enjoyed it as well!

Comment by Coffee and a Book Chick

[…] The Hunger Games (11/14/10) Jeff Kinney – Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (11/11/10) Sara Gruen – Water for Elephants (11/7/10) Paul Auster – The New York Trilogy (11/4/10) Andrew Clements – The […]

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