Our View From Here

Perspectives of Five Women

Water For Elephants: Even Better the Second Time

Sells-Floto Circus train unloading

Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

Spoiler Warning – Big time! I mean it!

You were warned…

I’ve read Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen twice now.  The first time was about three years ago.  The book hadn’t been out in paperback for long and I decided to pick it up. It sat on my shelf for a little bit since I had a bit of a book back log. When I did get to it, I wasn’t sure what to think. The two page teaser at the beginning grabbed me right away, but the next chapter was from the point of view of an old man.  It wasn’t nearly as interesting as the teaser.  I kept trudging through and it picked up once I realized that the old man was the young man in the flashbacks.

The second time I read it was last fall when my offline book club chose it as our October selection.  I reread the book since most of it was hazy in my mind. I remember enjoying it much more the second time around.  I understood what exactly was going on in the teaser, but I had forgotten enough of it to make most of the novel seem new again.  I was also able to look at the old man in a new light – understanding that it was the same man and how that experienced shaped him.

Overall, I liked the book, but there was one part that almost made me stop reading the book.  As any regular reader knows, I’m a bit of a dog lover. When Kinko’s dog, Queenie, was lost, I was almost in tears.  I was in tears in the next chapter when Marlena brought the dog back to him.  The character of Kinko is such a hard guy, obviously affected by his physical stature and that he was the bottom of the performers.  The dog was the only thing he cared about and it made him more human.

Next weekend, my offline book club is meeting to go see the new Water for Elephants movie. While I’m not a big Robert Pattinson fan (liked him as Cedric in Harry Potter, can’t get over him as a sparkly vampire in Twilight), I do like Reese Witherspoon and the story is epic enough to play well on the big screen.  I hear that the elephant steals the show, though!

Leave a comment »

Elephantine love story

This post may contain Spoilers!

Water for Elephants was recommended to me several times.  Each time, I’d pick it up in the bookstore, look at the cover, and decide it wasn’t for me.  It looked like chick-lit.  I have a strong aversion to that genre of fiction.  I understand it can be entertaining to read about “women’s issues” to some. But the women’s issues that show up in chick-lit usually center around the “needs” of the modern women, i.e. a man, good shoes and enough money to survive in the urban jungle.  Pretty much in that order.  This is just not how I experience the world, and I never really felt the need to immerse myself in that kind of navel-gazing.  I navel-gaze in other ways.

I’m not quite sure what led me to finally pick up Water for Elephants, but I’m glad I did.  There were a few things about the story-telling that I didn’t like.  But in general, I thought it was a vibrant story, set in a completely fascinating time period and filled will real characters.

Unfortunately, the two main characters, Jacob and Marlena, weren’t really all that interesting to me.  As I read the story, I started to see them more as the lens through which we view this amazing world of a depression-era traveling circus.  Their love story was fraught, as Amanda pointed out yesterday, by the lightning-quick mood changes of ringmaster, August. But I didn’t worry about the outcome of the tale as it related to them.  I worried about the more minor characters, who’s fate seemed to lie in Jacob’s hands.

Jacob’s roommate, Walter, was actually one of the more real characters in the story.  This character was set up from the beginning as an obstacle to Jacob, a characterization of the difficulty of being accepted into the world of the circus.  But, Walter changed.  He became a person, he was given depth and a history.  He even became a hero in the end and when he was redlighted, I was actually upset and surprised.  But Jacob’s near miss didn’t affect me nearly as much.

Another central character in the story pulled me in.  Rosie, the eponymous elephant, had soul.  She’s a trickster and she’s stubborn (something I really identify with).  I have always loved animals, and elephants in particular are fascinating to me.  But I really didn’t expect to be so taken with Rosie as a protagonist.  Especially after the first chapter, when I had written her off as a violent rogue animal.

So, in short, this isn’t chick lit.  It’s a great story set in a strangely romantic era, but the central romance in the story, though it is set up as the most important element of the book, comes off as a bit of a foregone conclusion.  Despite this (rather large) problem that I saw in the book, I really enjoyed it and it was totally worth reading.  If only for the elephants and the dogs!

Leave a comment »

Troubling characterization

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

This week, we’re exploring themes presented in Sara Gruen’s novel, Water for Elephants. Let me start off by saying I enjoyed this book immensely. It was also nice to read a real book again, as opposed to reading it on my Kindle. My Kindle is probably one of my most favorite possessions, but despite its convenience, I do miss the tactile connection to a book from time to time. Nicole lent me her copy of Water for Elephants and I enjoyed holding a book and turning its pages again. But enough of my tangential musings. On to the book!

One thing that struck me about the book is the character of August, the Superintendent of Animals and husband to the beautiful Marlena. Through the course of the novel, we witness August’s mercurial temper and violent tendencies toward man and beast. He is easy to hate, as he beats the circus’ elephant and treats circus workers with the utmost cruelty when they cross him. We find out later that August is a paranoid schizophrenic.

I had a bit of trouble with this character trait. Mental illness isn’t terribly well understood or tolerated now, let alone in the early 1930s when this story takes place. By explaining away August’s violence tendencies as a result of his paranoid schizophrenia, I felt Gruen just compounds the stereotype that those with mental illness are unstable and dangerous. While of course this may ring true for some, millions with a mental illness diagnosis are well-adjusted members of society with no penchant for violence. Though Gruen does make August charming at various points throughout the story, early in the story, the reader learns to not trust August and grows to hate him. While he makes a fine villain for the story, I was somewhat troubled by the implications of Gruen’s characterization. Unless she was just trying to portray August as he would have been perceived in the 1930s. Entirely possible, but the end result is the same.

Despite my discomfort with Gruen’s treatment of August, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The characters and situations are interesting and Gruen’s use of time enhances the complexity of the story. I could write more, but I want to be mindful of my fellow bloggers. They will be discussing their impressions of Water for Elephants as well this week and I want to be sure they have plenty of material left to talk about.

Leave a comment »