Customer Review

238 of 285 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't Transcend The Source Material, November 5, 2006
This review is from: Water for Elephants: A Novel (Hardcover)
In recent years, publishers have put out a number of collections of early twentieth century circus photographs. The photographs are intensely interesting, revealing the grime, brutality and absurdity underneath the surface glamour of the traveling circuses of that era.

Gruen was inspired by the photographs to write this novel. Gruen thoroughly researched her subject matter, collecting scores of anecdotes that revealed the brutality and desperation of that world. She weaved the anecdotes together with a love story worthy of a three-hanky weepie from the 1930s. The combination of grit and sweetness works only to a point, but the inherently interesting nature of the subject matter managed to hold my interest to the end.

To me, however, Gruen never managed to transcend her source material. The primary problem was the narrator's voice. Although the book was sprinkled with circus-specific vocabularly of that era, Gruen utterly fails to capture the rhythm or syntax of the time or milieu. Gruen's language felt inappropriately contemporary, which undermined the overall credibility of the story. The subject matter cried out for a writer with an ear for the street; I kept thinking about what Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner could have done with this material.

The other major problem was that Gruen over-anthropomophized and over-romanticized the animals in the story. Gruen could have honored the animals' intelligence -- and decried the brutality of their treatment -- without veering into fantasy.

In the end, while I wasn't sorry I read the book, I would have preferred to read a non-fiction account of life in the Depression-era circus from a first hand source rather than this watered down trifle.
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Comments

Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 19 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 30, 2007 9:26:36 AM PST
D. Wolowsky says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 9, 2008 4:27:57 PM PDT
Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1) - Cite This Source - Share This
an·thro·po·mor·phize
-verb (used with object), verb (used without object), -phized, -phiz·ing.
to ascribe human form or attributes to (an animal, plant, material object, etc.).

http://dictionary.reference.com/search?r=2&q=anthropomorphize

Posted on Nov 25, 2008 5:18:22 PM PST
kaduzy says:
I agree 100% with this review. She's obviously a top-notch researcher, but her writing skills are seriously lacking. The story is trite and filled with cliches. However, she did a much more credible job writing the parts of the story where he's old. I too would love to read a non-fiction account of the same era. Please let me know if you ever find one. She ignited a curiosity about the time period and the subject matter that I wouldn't have otherwise had, so I'll give her credit for that if nothing else.

Posted on Dec 17, 2008 5:12:45 PM PST
A. Anderson says:
You are reviewing the book as though it were intended to be history, not a novel with a touch of romantic fantasy.

Posted on Dec 28, 2008 5:54:47 AM PST
debra crosby says:
I agree with your review. The circus descriptions were spot on, but the characters were one-sided, with the exception of old Jacob, who was wonderful.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 28, 2008 2:48:28 PM PST
debra crosby says:
I agree with you, too. Schmaltzy romance story, with cardboard characters, that ruins some really great research and a well established sense of place and time.

Posted on Dec 28, 2008 2:49:42 PM PST
debra crosby says:
I agree with you. I was very disappointed in this book -- started out with great promise and she did a wonderful job creating the circus atmosphere, etc. Ruined it with schmaltz.

Posted on Jan 28, 2009 4:34:35 AM PST
Mark Kasper says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on Feb 8, 2009 9:11:06 AM PST
J. Koes says:
I wanted to love this book, but also felt that the material was watered down. I could over look all the flaws until the end when it became a sappy love story. All and all though I enjoyed the read, a nice escape from the real world.

Posted on Mar 16, 2009 10:54:28 AM PDT
E. Barker says:
I have felt like a curmudgeon for not liking this book! It was an fascinating time in our relatively recent history, and the circus details were sufficiently interesting to keep me reading but the characters remind me of those old movies where the villain ties the damsel to the railroad tracks. I was very turned off by anachronisms from the beginning (a person in the 30's referring to "perks" of the job, for example). Although the portrayal of the elderly Jacob was better, his life in the retirement facility was idealized. The ending.....oh please! My take on this book is that it was a romance novel set in a circus.
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