Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Benzini Brothers Circus, where most of the action of Water for Elephants take place, bills itself as the Greatest Show on Earth, knows it’s far from that, and yet still delivers quite a performance. That seems a good metaphor for this novel as a whole. It features genuine wonders and it’s easy to get lost in it, but, when you walk outside its tent again, you have to admit there are better circuses (better novels) doing similar things.

I hope that doesn’t come across as too belittling. This show is a good one – at times a very good one. The love story at its heart has its peculiar effectiveness because it takes place in the shadow of the circus with all the odd animals, petty jealousies, and spangled outfits that implies. The story is a familiar one, but that doesn’t keep Gruen from selling it with good energy and effective pacing. And it kept me hanging on with interest to the final pages.

I found I particularly enjoyed the way the novel balances the exotic magic of the circus with the drearier facts of every day (and seemingly well-researched) historical life. I have not seen the movie, yet I found it easy to imagine Reese Witherspoon as Marlena – a kind of effortlessly beautiful woman with substance beneath her surface. Jacob sometimes irritated me with his impulsiveness, but that provides a good counterpoint to his otherwise too clean, Galahad-complexed self.

That said, it grows more violent than the story itself feels licensed to become, and I came to resent some of the present-day parts of the narrative – and the resolution feels a bit unearned, maybe a bit hurried.

The characters of the Benzini Brothers all know that, somewhere, Ringling Brothers stands as the pinnacle of the circus life. For me, reading this a decade after it came out, that pinnacle remains The Night Circus, a book that, in the end, is simply an all-around better show. Read this and enjoy it – everyone should go to the circus every so often – but keep an eye out for the even bigger show as it makes its way to your town.

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