A resident of an assisted living facility looks back on his work for a Depression-era traveling circus
Water for Elephants: A Novel. By Sara Gruen. Algonquin, 331 pp., $13.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Reading this overpraised historical novel is like watching a circus show that moves so briskly and has so many bizarre acts that you almost don’t notice how threadbare the performers’ costumes are. Like Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, it takes the form of a monologue by one of those human curiosities who are among the last of their kind. In this case, he’s a man in his 90s who looks back on his stint with a Depression-era traveling circus from his perch in an assisted living facility.
This premise gives Sara Gruen plenty of room to introduce oddballs like “the human ostrich,” a man who claims he can swallow and return any object. “Wallets, watches, even lightbulbs!” a barker shouts. “You name it, he’ll regurgitate it!” By far the most interesting parts of the novel involve these characters, many inspired by real-life performers Gruen uncovered during her research.
Otherwise Water for Elephants is pure pop fiction — a sentimental fairy tale about cruel bosses, lovable freaks and an elephant as loyal as Dr. Seuss’s Horton. Gruen sets the tone when she reels off a half dozen or so clichés in the first two pages. The rest of the novel develops predictable themes – for example, that wife-beating and cruelty to animals are wrong – at a pace that helps to minimize the damage. If many historical novels move at the speed of a hippo that’s just been shot with tranquilizing darts, this one resembles a good show under the big top in at least one respect: It rushes forward at a full gallop until the last page.
Best line: A line about bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, romanticized by the newspapers of his day. The narrator of the novel, Jacob Jankowski, sees a headline that reads: “PRETTY BOY FLOYD STRIKES AGAIN: MAKES OFF WITH $4,000 AS CROWDS CHEER.”
Worst line (three-way tie): No. 1 “My heart skipped a beat … Thunderous applause exploded from the big top … the music screeched to a halt … No one moved a muscle.” All of these clichés appear in the first page-and-a-half. No. 2 Later on, characters say cloyingly folksy things like “Dagnammit” and “Grady, git that jug back, will ya?” No. 3 Some characters also “hiss,” “cackle,” “bark,” “hoot” and “cluck” their words instead of saying them. (As in: “‘Woohoo,’ cackles the old man.”)
Reading group guide: The publisher’s guide appears in the paperback edition and online at www.algonquin.com. A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 21, 2007, just before this review. If you are reading this review on the home page for the site, scroll down to find the guide. If you are reading the review elsewhere on the site or on the Web, click on this link to find it: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/.
Published: April 2007 (paperback), May 2006 (hardcover).
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© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.