Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

In a nutshell
It may seem like a love story, but it’s actually not (covers can be deceiving!), which is why I decided to read it. This story, set around the depression era, is about Jacob who almost graduates from an Ivy League school with a degree in veterinary sciences. Upon finding out his parents’ death and his dad’s debts, he wandered off from home and jumped onto a train, only to find out later that it was a circus train. When the owner of circus, Uncle Al, found out he has a degree in veterinary science, he was hired to be the animal doctor and was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. He ended up spending most of his life there until he had his own family.

What I liked
The story flowed very well, moving from one scene to another very beautifully. What added to its quality for me also is the author’s ability to give the story a very strong sense of place. I could feel like I was in every part of the story – from moving in the train car with Jacob to looking desperately for Queenie, Walter’s dog. I could almost hear the sounds of the circus – the crowd and the music, even the smell of the food!

I actually preferred reading about the 90 or 93 year old Jacob. I thought Gruen did a marvellous job on him. She maintained young Jacob’s stubbornness and determination which resulted in him being crude and cantankerous when old, and at the same time adding the reality of being old, “Age is a terrible thief. Just when you’re getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse.”

The descriptions and inner dialogues were so real that I fear old-age, especially when I read this, “When you are five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties, you know how old you are. I’m twenty-three you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties, something strange starts to happen. It is a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I’m–you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you are not. You’re thirty-five. And then you’re bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it’s decades before you admit it.”

I was quite fond of Kinko, Jacob’s reluctant roommate. On appearance, he seemed like a rather grumpy and unfriendly person. But deep down, he was kind, caring and gentle. You could tell by the way he treats his dog, Queenie. Initially, Jacob’s relationship with him was rocky, but they developed a strong friendship later when Jacob managed to cure Queenie’s problem. He later allowed Jacob to call him Walter, his real name.

I couldn’t help myself falling for these 3 characters – the cheeky Bobo the monkey (a small role); super talented Rosie the elephant and ever loyal Queenie (Kinko’s Jack Russell)! They all added humour to this story. I was expecting Rosie to come in much earlier in the story, but it appeared only much later. Nevertheless, this 2500 pounds beauty never ceased to make me fall for her over and over again.

The title. Now, this is a tricky one. It bugged me quite a bit. It was brought up somewhere in the beginning of the book, but was never really ‘explained’ what it actually meant. All we were told is that we don’t carry water for elephants, because elephants drink a hell lot. So I think, metaphorically, it could mean to carry a huge burden. So in this story, it would mean the secret Jacob has been keeping with him for many years, which I won’t reveal here.

What I didn’t quite like
The cover. The cover. The cover. I didn’t like this movie tie-in version. First, because I’m not a fan of Robert Pattinson. Second, this story is not a love story. So a lovey-dovey concept shouldn’t be used on the cover. I much prefer this one on the left.

Didn’t’ quite like Marlena’s character development; thought there’s nothing much to her, rather…urm…hollow (?) except always feeling lost and helpless. Felt like she chose Jacob not because she loved him, but because she had nobody else she could rely on, and the person who really cared for her besides August, was Jacob.

And the ending didn’t really make sense. It felt ‘forced’. Maybe the author wanted to keep it ‘fairytale-like’? It was just a ‘nice’ ending to ‘complete’ the story.

Besides that, it’s a very pleasant read. I enjoyed the experience reading about the train circus life during the depression era. Oh, one warning though, you might have to bear with the animal abuse descriptions. Brutal and graphic.

My verdict? 3.5/5
Didn’t hate it, didn’t really love it either. What made this a page turner for me was the tempo of the plot that was nicely set. You know what would happen next, but you don’t know when. That kinda kept the suspense rolling.

Although I enjoyed the book, I have a feeling I’d prefer the movie 🙂

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