Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen

Paperback: 350 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books (April 9, 2007)
ISBN-10: 1565125606
ISBN-13: 978-1565125605

If there is a theme to my reading in 2011, it is a rush to read books that have been on my list for ages, before they are ruined by Hollywood. I am a book-to-film skeptic. I understand that they are two different art forms and I must expect changes during a conversion. I get that. I have just never found a film adaptation that was better – or even as good as – the book it is based on. I’m sure the same can be said in the opposite direction too, though books based on films are far less common.

Regardless, that has almost nothing to do with the following review, except that I first bought Water for Elephants as a gift for my sister-in-law for Christmas 2009. It looked fantastic. I figured I’d probably end up borrowing her copy when she finished, or buying myself another copy, and I’d have it read by spring. Didn’t happen. I was in school and working and reading other stuff for book club. I have a very long to-be-read list. This was just one more.

Then I cringed upon hearing the film was being made and learning who was cast. I hate reading a book when I know what actor has been cast for each role, because I cannot put it out of my head and thus can’t decide for myself what that character looks like, which really is half the fun of reading.

So I rushed out to buy myself a copy and read the book as quickly as I could before anything else was ruined.

The good news: nothing could ruin this book. It was fantastic. Well researched. Well written. Well developed characters. Well, well, well.

Quick synopsis: Jacob is studying to be a vet at Cornell. He is suddenly orphaned, left destitute, and does not sit his final exams. Then he accidentally runs away with the circus. Then he meets Marlena. Cue some glitz, glamour, sex, violence, murder and mayhem under the Big Top. And a Polish speaking elephant. Many years later, 90 (or 93) year old Jacob tells his story from a nursing home.

The bulk of the plot occurs in 1931, through flashbacks or dream sequences. Jacob and Marlena fall in love. They train Rosie (the elephant) to be a star. They protect her from August’s cruelty. They make other friends along the way. And then the whole circus falls apart in a dramatic ending.Yet, the pieces of the narrative that really stick with me are the scenes with Jacob as an old man, frustrated with the limitations of his body, and with the world’s assumption that his mind must be similarly limited as well. Here we see a different, empathetic side of the stereotypical cranky old man. And he is extremely endearing.

Pattinson and Witherspoon in Water for Elephants.

Most of us will never join a circus. But most of us will grow old. It is this side of Jacob that makes him such a great character: an old man, sad for what he has lost, but reflecting with joy and pride on all that he did and accomplished, and the people he loved.

Highly recommended.

Also: Saw the film yesterday. All things considered, a pretty good adaptation. The idea of pairing Reese Witherspoon with Robert Pattinson seemed ridiculous, but it worked. He makes a much better vet than vampire. Not as good as the book of course, but I would never expect that.