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Book: Water for Elephants

September 21, 2010
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I read this upon Tammie’s insistence. I’m glad I did, although I have a distinctly mixed response to it.

So. On the one hand, the circus trade in the early part of the 20th century (I think this was set in the 1930s) is a completely fascinating subject. From the true freaks to the hoaxes, to the circus trains to the fabulous costumes to the shady characters, I enjoyed all the history and dark shadows. Except for one shadow, a rather large shadow, which I’ll get to in a minute.

This is the story of Jacob, now an old man in a nursing home, remembering his time in Benzini’s Circus, as the rather reluctant veterinarian. Suffering a devastating loss as a young man, Jacob, sort of despite himself, ends up joining the circus. In the process, he makes some friends, some very dangerous enemies, and falls head over heels in love… with two lovely ladies. One is the beautiful and troubled Marlena, and the other is the stubborn, talented, Polish, Rosie. Rosie, the elephant.

The story was good, although painful to read (for reasons I will get to in a minute), and the circus setting was interesting and gritty and sometimes very dark. This was not a very cheerful novel. I liked it for that. It wasn’t doom-and-gloom either, which I also appreciated. It was a desperate love story which grew from a very seedy setting, and which had devastating consequences for many of the parties involved. Although I wouldn’t say this is destined to become a favorite, I did enjoy this part of the book.

The part I really did not enjoy, and which almost made me stop reading the book at several points, were the descriptions of the horribly inhumane ways the circus animals were treated. I really almost could not read this book because of it. Of course, Rosie the elephant gets her revenge in a very satisfying way, in the end. Still, for me, that did not mitigate the absolute sick horror I felt at her mistreatment, as well as the conditions for the other animals. I really didn’t want to read those and ended up doing some serious skimming because it was just too painful for me. I really understand why she included it, and I don’t think any story about the circus pre-animal-rights could be told without at least alluding to the poor treatment of the animals, but I still didn’t like it.

I know they are making a movie of this book, and I’m sure it will be pretty good. But I don’t know if I’ll want to see it, because the cruelty to the animals is such a central part of the book. I don’t know if they could make the movie without at least hinting at it, and I really don’t want to see any of it or have those images in my head again.

I will say that I’m probably a little oversensitive in this area. Still, it was difficult for me to keep reading. If you are tender-hearted, beware. This is a very good story but with some serious darkness, of the kind which I am NOT attracted to at all. I can take all the crap people do to one another, but to animals? Can’t do it.

Anyway. I *think* I’m glad I read it, because half (okay, maybe three-quarters) of the book was very enjoyable and the photos included were great. But it gets serious demerits for the sad, sad animal portraits. Too much for me. I will say that it had a terrific ending which almost made up for the animal bits. Almost.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 7:51 pm

    This has been on my “to read” list forever…but for some reason, I always choose something else.

    Maybe next time I won’t.

    • September 22, 2010 7:35 am

      Yes, I’d be interested in what you thought of it.

  2. jmjbookblog permalink
    September 21, 2010 9:18 pm

    I can fully identify with your feelings regarding reading anything that involves animals being hurt or abused…I’m afraid I will be rear-ended one day by a tailgating driver should a squirrel run across the road…I would automatically brake…I can’t help myself. I was looking forward to seeing the movie which is starring Robert Pattinson…now I’m a little worried I might have to bring a pursefull of tissues. Thanks for the great review..I’m really glad I read it before reading the book.

    • September 22, 2010 7:36 am

      Thanks for commenting! I’m curious about the movie but will have to wait to read the reviews to see if I think I could stand to watch it. The *rest* of the book was really good, and the animal stuff certainly was not gratuitous… still, hard to take.

  3. September 22, 2010 6:38 am

    so many people have been reading this it seems and liking it and I’ve been thinking recently that maybe I should read it too. But now, even though you say it is good, I think I will skip it because of the animal abuse parts of it.

    • September 22, 2010 7:37 am

      I need to go read other people’s reviews of this, because I am curious how other people reacted to the animal stuff. It was really hard for me to read, even though i wanted to read Jacob’s story. It just made me so sad, and I am just not feeling up for reading sad things lately.

  4. September 23, 2010 11:33 am

    (first off, i dont know why im so behind in reading your blog. here i am just thinking you havent blogged in a while and i pop over only to see a weeks worth of posts. what is up with that?!)

    anyway, yep this is how i felt about the book too. if i hadnt been reading it for a book club, i dont know if i would have continued reading, because i cant handle a lot of animal abuse either. it hurts me to the core and makes me sick to my stomach. But, i do so love this book. i think its just one of those well written, well researched stories that reaffirms my love of reading.

    • September 23, 2010 4:50 pm

      yeah, what is up with that? just kidding.

      it was a great book, aside from the animal stuff, which was NOT outside the realm of ‘acceptable’ for what the book was about… but i still almost couldn’t read it. But I’m glad you made me! You know, twisting my arm like you do…

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