218 of 261 people found the following review helpful
Well researched but lacking,
This review is from: Water for Elephants: A Novel (Paperback)
I found this book interesting because of the research Ms. Gruen obviously did on train circuses and depression-era life. I also thought her passages detailing the life of Jake as an old man were the best written things in the book. Since Ms. Gruen is a woman who appears (from her author's photo) to be barely middle-aged, I have to assume that some research went into finding out about the lives of elderly men as well, because she writes these passages with a clear and utterly believable voice that truly resonates.
Unfortunately nothing else in the book resonates nearly as much, and there's a lot lacking here. The young version of Jake never takes off as a character, nor does his entirely manufactured love story with a circus bareback rider. We know from the moment he sees Marlena that she'll obviously be his love interest, but their relationship never actually develops before they're suddenly declaring love for one another and hitting the sack.
Ms. Gruen also fails in her execution of believable villains. Her two main villains are August, a brutal horse trainer who abuses or neglects all of the animals, and "Uncle Al", the cruel circus boss, but their villainy never really jumps off the page. For some reason, she chose to make her main antagonist (August) Jewish. I still don't understand the reasoning behind that, nor do I understand her choice to call him a paranoid schizophrenic as well. Oh and for good measure, he's also a wife beater. He's simply too many things rolled into one. Perhaps if she'd concentrated on one aspect of his brutality, she could have made him more believable. And unfortunately, since his religion really has nothing else to do with him as a character, it's hard not to simply label Ms. Gruen as anti-semitic. Perhaps if she'd actually used the "show, don't tell" philosophy and let us SEE what Uncle Al was doing instead of just hearing about everything second hand from other characters, he wouldn't have seemed so two-dimensional. As it is, I never bought these guys as the towering pillars of pure evil they were obviously supposed to be.
I also never bought Jake, at least not as a young man. One minute he's making a vow to himself that he'll stay with the animals so they won't be hurt, because that's what his dead father would want him to do. Yet, he stands by not once but TWICE and allows August to savagely beat an elephant with a hook. It's hard to respect a character like that. Jake rarely takes any real action; he mostly just stands by while things happen TO him or happen *around* him.
I also felt the book could have benefited from a diagram. In books that take place on ships, there's usually a sketch in the front of the book with all the parts labeled for readers to refer back to so they can understand the action. I had a lot of trouble visualizing the train where a good 40% of the crucial action takes place in this book, and that was a major barrier to getting into the story. Had there been a sketch of it up front with all the sections labeled, those sections of the story would have been much easier to understand.
Overall, I am giving this book three stars because of the research, the informative author's note at the end, and the sections with Jake as an old man. I also really got a kick out of the ending. But on the whole, I would recommend this as a library book or a used book store book -- definitely NOT one you pay full price for.
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Showing 1-10 of 63 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 15, 2007 1:09:47 PM PDT
E. Martindale says:
VERY WELL STATED - I couldn't agree with you more. Plus I couldn't understand why it took a Cornell (almost) greaduate so very long to figure it out since it was mentioned from Day 1 that Rosie had been in a Polish circus.
One area where I disagree - I would give the book a 1 star if that. I did read the entire book and then wondered why when I was finished. The ending is especially "over the top."
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 15, 2007 6:52:28 PM PDT
Thank you so much for commenting; I'm glad you liked my review. I actually liked the ending, but the rest of the book didn't pass muster with me, for the most part.
And hey, watch what you say about Cornell graduates . . . I'm one myself! We tend to be a forgetful lot sometimes. ;-)
Posted on Dec 8, 2007 5:03:42 AM PST
J. B. D. McLean says:
A minute proportion of East European Jews are animal trainers but a high proportion of East European circus families are Jewish. It doesn't sound anti-Semitic to me to make August Jewish, irrespective of whether he is a good man or a bad one. For the novel to be anti-Semitic, it would have to make some kind of specious link between a Jewish character's badness (cruelty to animals, wife-beating, malignant schizophrenia) and his or her Jewishness. Thanks for the review, though. I'm not sure this book is for me.
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 9, 2007 10:30:51 AM PST
Thank you, that clarifies things a great deal. I'm glad you found the review helpful.
Posted on Dec 23, 2007 12:19:01 PM PST
Good review. I agree with your point about the love affair being "manufactured." It seemed kind of silly and actually detracted from the story, rather than added to it.
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 27, 2007 10:58:48 AM PST
Thank you. That was definitely a big problem for me.
Posted on Jan 15, 2008 3:16:13 PM PST
I just finished the book and I agree with you 100%. The whole story just seems to fall flat... the characters have no life and I don't think it is very well written... I was disappointed with Jacob's relationships - all of a sudden they just seemed to mean so much to him, and yet he didn't seem to do anything about it. He was such an obvious goody goody. It made me sick when he was peeking into the tent and saw another guy looking up another woman's skirt. Give me a break! After reading it it seemed like she just added the Jewish thing because she needed an excuse as to why Marlena's parents disowned her. This is one of those books I would read with caution... just because everyone raves about it doesn't mean it's good!
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 23, 2008 3:42:07 PM PST
minnie ha ha says:
Why is August Jewish? What religion are the others? And what's religion got to do with anything? That is what is "specious." As for the link, August was brutal, violent, mentally ill, and Jewish. So where do we go with that?
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 23, 2008 3:43:57 PM PST
minnie ha ha says:
Do you see a parallel with the three main characters in Sophie's Choice?
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 8, 2008 2:30:28 AM PST
I've actually never seen that movie. But when I do, I'll keep this book in mind and then get back to you . . .