One-Minute Book Reviews

September 21, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sara Gruen’s ‘Water for Elephants’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Water for Elephants
A Novel by Sara Gruen
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Algonquin Books has posted a reading group guide to Water for Elephants at www.algonquin.com that you may want to use at a starting point for your discussions. But like most publishers’ guides, that guide is part of a publicity campaign designed to sell books. It does not encourage criticism, quote negative reviews or compare the novel to others that you might enjoy more. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but only to raise questions the Algonquin guide doesn’t.

A few generations ago, many Americans dreamed about escaping from humdrum lives by joining a traveling circus. Sara Gruen describes the tawdry allure of a Depression-era Big Top in her historical novel, Water for Elephants, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. Her narrator is Jacob Jankowski, a widowed nonagenarian who lives in an assisted living facility and looks back on his work for a traveling circus after his parents’ deaths forced him to leave veterinary school. Young Jacob is intelligent and hard-working. But if he expects those traits to help him avoid brutal hardship, he is corrected by the equestrian director of the Benzini Brothers circus. “The whole thing’s an illusion, Jacob,” his co-worker says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what people want from us. It’s what they expect.”

Questions for Readers

1. Historical novels are often overpraised, because good research can mask or distract you from flaws in the plot, characterization or structure of a book. Do you think Water for Elephants deserved all the praise quoted in the front matter of the paperback edition? Or do you believe some critics might have been willing to overlook its flaws because of interesting material that Sara Gruen turned up in her research? Were you willing to overlook any flaws you found in the novel? Why?

2. Susan Cheever, the novelist and memoirist, says in the same front matter that Water for Elephants is “a book about what animals can teach people about love.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, what is this novel really “about”?

3. “Despite her often clichéd prose and predictable ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book,” a reviewer for the trade journal Publishers Weekly wrote. Algonquin omits the first part of that sentence and begins with “Gruen” when it quotes from the review in the paperback edition. This kind of editing is considered fair – or at least standard – in publishing. It’s also fair to ask: How did you react to that “often clichéd prose”? (There are at least five clichés in the first one-and-a-half-pages: “thunderous applause,” “screeched to a halt,” “My heart skipped a beat,” “No one moved a muscle,” and “ ‘you’ve got a lot to lose.”) If you had been the editor of the novel, would you have suggested that Gruen lose a few? Or is the book is strong enough that it doesn’t matter?

4. Did you find the ending of the book as “predictable” as the PW reviewer did? Or did you find it surprising? Why?

5. Authors of historical novels usually try to avoid anachronisms such as modern language used by characters from other eras. How well did Gruen do on that count? Would Depression-era characters say things like, “So, did you two manage to hook up?” [Page 158] Does this matter? Why or why not?

6. Many novels that are popular with book clubs come from female authors who write in the voice of a female character. Water for Elephants is different in that its narrator is a man in his 90s. How well did Gruen portray Jacob? Did she portray characters of one sex better than the other?

7. Historical novels are traditionally defined as books in which the action takes place before their authors were born. Pride and Prejudice, for example, isn’t considered a “historical” novel because Jane Austen was writing about her own times. But many of the most popular American novels of the past 100 years, from Gone With the Wind to The Clan of the Cave Bear and Cold Mountain, are historical novels. How would you compare Water for Elephants with some of your favorites?

8. Gruen says in an interview in the back matter of the paperback edition that the “backbone” of her novel “parallels the biblical story of Jacob.” [Page 350] For example, the biblical Jacob works for seven years for his uncle Laban. In Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski “worked on circuses for nearly seven years” [Page 4], one of them owned by a man named Uncle Al. Apart from the appearance of “Jacob’s ladder,” the best-known part of the biblical story occurs when Esau sells his birthright to Jacob, his younger brother, for food. [In the time of Esau and Jacob, on the death of the father, the oldest son received twice as much property as any other child, known as the “birthright.] Does Water for Elephants have a counterpart to Esau?

9. Many people might consider the prologue to Water for Elephants to be controversial, because you could argue that it deceives you about the killer of August Rosenbluth, the superintendent of animals at the Benzini Brothers circus, in the scene in which he dies. How did you react to the scene? [Page 4] Was it fair or unfair given what happens later?

10. One way to judge the prologue is to compare it with mysteries you’ve read. A canon of mystery-writing that authors must “play fair” with readers. This means, in part, that a writer must give you all the clues you need to solve the mystery and provide them at appropriate times. (For example, a writer can’t withhold all or most of the important clues until halfway through the book or later, because this would deprive you of a pleasure you expect from a mystery – the chance to figure out “who did it” as you go along.) A mystery writer must also write as clearly as he or she can. That is, the the identity of the killer can be uncertain until the end, but the language can’t be unclear because of murky pronoun antecedents or other intentional grammatical lapses. How does all of this relate to the prologue and what comes after?

Extras:
1. James Michener, who did heavy research for his own books, said: “The greatest novels are written without any recourse to research other than the writer’s solitary inspection of the human experience. Flaubert, Dostoevski, Jane Austen, Turgenev, and Henry James exemplify this truth.” [Literary Reflections: Michener on Michener, Hemingway, Capote, & Others (State House press, 1993), p. 74.] Do you agree or disagree?

2. If you agree with Susan Cheever that this is “a book about what animals can teach people about love,” what do the animals teach us? What do we learn from this book that you couldn’t get from movies and television shows like Babe or Lassie, which involved intelligent and loyal animals?

Vital statistics:
Water for Elephants: A Novel. By Sara Gruen. Algonquin, 335 pp., $13.95, paperback.

Published: April 2007 (paperback), May 2006 (Algonquin hardcover). A review of Water for Elephants appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 21, 2007. If you are reading this guide on the home page for the site, scroll up to find the review. If you are reading it elsewhere on the site or on the Internet, click on this: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/.

Your book group may also want to read:

Genesis, Chapters 25:19–37:35. The biblical story of Jacob appears in these.

Horton Hatches the Egg, by Dr. Seuss, first published by Random House www.seussville.com in 1940 and also available in other editions. The epigraph for Water for Elephants comes from this book.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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