Sunday, October 4, 2009

Water for Elephants (Closing Thoughts)

# of pages: 335
Pages read so far: 3,211
Average pages/book: 321.1

Water for Elephants is a great story well-told. It hooked me fairly early on in the narrative and never really disappointed me, which I'm discovering is pretty rare for a longer piece of fiction. It definitely doesn't feel long, however. I'm a fairly slow reader, but I digested the bulk of this book in two days. I know I've got friends who would probably digest it all in one and not miss a bit of the enjoyment. By the end of the story, it's hard to believe only three-and-a-half months have passed in Jacob's life, partially because you've finished the story so quickly and partially because he undergoes such massive changes in that amount of time.

I will say, however, that I struggle to find much that corresponds to the story of the biblical Jacob, which the author claimed to be the "backbone" of this novel. Not that that bothers me, it just seems it was an odd thing to say.

The book opens with Jacob Jankowski as a ninety (or possibly ninety-three)-year-old man in an assisted living facility. I will say that I've always kind of looked forward to old age--not that I'm looking forward to joint pain or daily medication, but I've always thought I'd be an awesome "back in my day" sort of guy. Jacob's reflections on assisted living, however, are heartbreaking and harrowing. I'm now far more apprehensive about the twilight of my years after reading this book! Indeed, the picture that author Sara Gruen paints of Jacob is a dreary one, and as his flashback begins with the unexpected and gruesome death of his parents while he is away at college, I started to wonder when we were going to get to the touching romance I was promised by the comments on the back of the book.

Left with nothing (due to the benevolence of his father, a vet who stopped taking monetary payment when his neighbors could no longer afford to pay it--did I mention it's the Depression?), young Jacob runs away, eventually climbing onto a train on somewhat of a rash impulse. The train belongs to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, one of many traveling circuses of those days. Jacob gets hired on as the show's vet, an act which sets into motion a complex tale of love, loyalty, choices, and consequences. At times, you think it'll be yet another "good-hearted young man falls for beautiful woman who's married to a man she doesn't really love" story, but as the story unfolds more layers of complication arise to the point where the story is highly engaging. By the end of the story, you have the characters you love and those you loathe, but while you find the loathesome characters appalling, you do eventually come to see where they come from, and it takes a great story to let you see the villains sympathetically.

Minor gripes: there are two points, fairly major story points, which require you to simply accept what you're given at face value. A couple of characters make some pretty significant changes in attitude or emotion that, at the time, seem to come sorta out of nowhere. (Worth noting that I think I made peace with both of these instances by the end of the book; besides, I'm a reader who's usually willing to "just go there" in order to enjoy the story) Also, you're introduced to a LOT of secondary characters fairly early in the flashback, most of whom will disappear for the majority of the rest of the book before you've really gotten to know them, yet when the reappear later you're supposed to remember who they were and why they were significant. Didn't really affect the enjoyment of the book for me, though, since most of these characters were more functional than anything.

Major gripe: Okay, I understand that most stories are going to feature sex scenes. I've made peace with that truth. Of the ten books I've read so far, half of them have included sex scenes with varying degrees of detail. But this book was by far TOO MUCH INFORMATION for my taste. I generally find these scenes to be more effective when more is left to the imagination. Suggestion is a more effective means of communication than a blow-by-blow (pun only partially intended) account of every kinky encounter between the drunken Polish kid and the professional prostitute. At one point, this book spends several pages describing a strip show, and I really got the point fairly early on in the account. I know I thought that the sex descriptions in Ilium were bad, but Water for Elephants made Dan Simmons' work look positively PG by comparison.

The book wrestles with issues like prejudice, racism, poverty, business ethics, animal rights, mental illness, and loneliness, without ever actually needing to comment on any of them. It is, at its core, a love story/adventure. More, it's a story of love and friendship that exists in a world permeated by all of the aforementioned afflictions. And that makes for a good read more often than not.

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