Book Report: Water for Elephants

I originally wrote this review back in 2007, but am re-posting now, as the film version comes out today, and sometimes people wonder, when a film-based-on-a-book comes out, if they should read the book first.  More thoughts on that at the end of the piece.

Usually, when I visit the adoptive lesbian moms at the beach, I bring along a book -- something to read during the occasional quiet moment, or to ease the passage between awake and sleep each night.

Unfortunately, during my recent Thanksgiving trip, which will forever be known for its deliciously slow pace and bounteous quiet moments, I'd forgotten the book I was reading. And maybe I left it at home on purpose; even though I think the author is a literary genius, for some reason this particular book wasn't drawing me in. My unconscious mind might have very well set me up to be a hundred miles from home and without a book to read.

"I forgot to pack my book," I said to one of the moms as we were walking around downtown Rehoboth, and just happened to be strolling toward my favorite independently owned bookstore in town.

"I know just the thing," she said in reply as we made a sharp right turn through the front doors.

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, is a really fast read. I actually finished it more than a week ago and had sort of forgotten that I blog about books I've read after I've read them -- that's because I spent so long trying to finish that book by that literary genius that never really hooked me.

It's about a kid who almost graduates from an Ivy League school with a degree in veterinary sciences, and who ends up, quite accidentally, on a train inhabited by circus performers and workers. He takes a menial job shoveling manure and other unpleasant tasks, but when his medical skills become known, he is quickly elevated to a much higher post, and assumes care for "the menagerie," a collection of animals including giraffes, lions, panthers, horses, and the like. It's also about the 93-year-old man that the circus kid eventually grows up to be. Occasionally, we'll break from the circus narrative to spend a moment of ennui in the horrible, clinical nursing home. These passages are sweet, and the give the reader a chance to catch his/her breath while reminding him/her, by comparison, how exciting a life in the circus really is.

The novel starts out with a prologue. No characters are introduced to you, and you're in the middle of a chaotic scene. Something has gone wrong. The band is playing "Stars and Stripes Forever," which is a secret code to all who work the circus that something has gone horribly, terribly wrong. The animals are stampeding, and our narrator is searching for someone named Marlena. When she is found, our narrator is witness to a murder. And then we move on to Chapter 1.

Whether or not the novel works has a lot to do with this prologue, actually. While reading the novel, I suspected that the author would eventually return me to this chaotic scene, and she did. And I assumed that when we got there the second time, it would make a lot more sense, and it did. What I didn't expect was that there would be a delightful surprise there, a tiny bit of information that wasn't included in the initial passage that changes ... well, everything. And if I say more, I'll give it away, so I won't.

Nonetheless, the prologue isn't perfect. When I read the very first paragraphs of the novel, which is written entirely in the first person, I assumed that the narrator was a woman. He's not, but the author is -- an assumption without merit, I suppose, but novelists who write in the first person usually voice characters much like themselves: same race, same gender, usually the same sexual orientation. When a man writes from a woman's perspective and does it well (She's Come Undone and Memoirs of a Geisha come to mind), it's considered a mild form of genius, but for all the praise I've heard about Gruen's novel, no one has singled out her ability to write in the male voice -- and they really should. Yes, I suppose that women have to know a lot more about men to get on in the world than vice versa, but Gruen's insight is uncanny, including moments when the narrator describes the shame of being a twenty-year-old virgin, his humiliating first sexual experience, his much more satisfying second sexual experience, and how he, at age 93, still regards his penis as something almost separate from himself. It's all sort of amazing.

Anyway, back to the prologue, which I appreciated because it sent the reader straight into the action, saving the exposition until later when the reader is already in a state of entrancement, but lost some of its edge when, halfway into the novel, I had sort of forgotten about. Thinking back, I wish I had taken a moment at about the hundred-page mark to re-read the prologue. At that point, having already met the beautiful and talented Marlena, I would have been just frantic to know exactly what the hell happened there.

And the other thing that strikes me about this book, what strikes me about a lot of books, is the title. Titles are very curious things. They can either be crucial to the book's meaning or something strictly designed to sell copies. I doubt that "Water for Elephants" was dreamt up for commercial reasons; without the recommendation of the adoptive lesbian mom, I'm not sure it would have ever captured my interest. But after reading the book itself, I think it's a brilliant choice. We first hear the phrase "water for elephants" in one of the nursing home scenes. A new arrival to the clinic brags of his experience working the circus as a young man. "I used to carry water for the elephants," he says, and our narrator immediately knows him for a liar. Apparently a lot of young men of that era claimed to be water carriers for the elephants, but no such job ever existed, and those who claimed to do that job were deceivers. Our narrator gets quite worked up over the liar in his midst, until a kind nurse reminds him that, even if it's not true, the old man believes that he carried water for elephants. Therefore, he might not be a liar, even if his story isn't true. And so the title evokes all kinds of meaning, about the power of memory (this is, after all, a tale told by a 93-year-old man about his 20-year-old life), and the way we remember things the way we wish they were rather than as they actually happened. And it also speaks to the power of illusion, which is what a circus is really all about anyway.

I heartily recommend this novel; it's a great read, with lively characters (I never even talked about Kinko, Uncle Al, or Old Camel) and an instantly recognizable backdrop that never ceases to surprise. It's gritty and sexy. While it might not have been as artful as Wasserstein's Elements of Style or moving as Kent Haruf's Plainsong, it's easily the most fun I've read this whole year.

So yeah, I'd recommend this - why not?  It's a fun, breezy read - but if you're inclined to see the film first, it might not be worth going back to the book later - assuming, of course, that the film is well done and enjoyable.  I will admit that the main reason I still remember this book fondly was a surprise at the end that I have not and will not give away here - and the movie will spoil that - assuming, of course, that the script is faithful to the source - and in this case, why wouldn't it be?

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