Book: Water for Elephants
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.