After reading this book, you won’t just want to go to the circus, you’ll want to join it! I’m not trying to be sarcastic here — Sara Gruen’s novel just creates such an interesting portrait of the behind-the-scenes aspects of circus life that it leaves you craving a little bit of adventure and magic in your own life. Perhaps that’s just for dissertation-writing grad students like myself, but I have to admit that even after reading about the dark side of the circus industry, I find myself daydreaming about what it would be like to run off and join the circus.
However, unrealistic fantasies aside (After all, what exactly would I do in the circus? Somehow I don’t think an Incredible Book-Reading Woman would do very well, even in the freak show….) Water For Elephants is compelling and interesting. Gruen’s narration keeps you turning the pages, and the temporal shifts between Jacob’s past and present adds to the tension and raises the stakes in the reader’s relationship with him. In other words, the book is a real page-turner.
As a historical novel, Water For Elephants sheds some light on a relatively unexplored facet of life during the Great Depression. As Jacob and the circus travel through a variety of towns, they see regular people struggling under the financial disaster — ordinary people living on the streets, businesses operating under the barter system, tensions between the “haves” and the “have nots” (the latter far outnumbering the former) — and also struggle within themselves, often facing a choice between leaving their jobs in the circus and entering a life of uncertainty and potential starvation, and keeping their jobs but remaining complicit in the abuse and neglect of animals and humans alike.
GOOD FOR: People who love live performances, anyone wishing to escape from their current situation (even if that escape only happens in daydreams), and readers who like a good love story.
BAD FOR: Those who can’t stomach descriptions of abuse (human and/or animal), people who don’t like circuses or carnivals in the least, and anyone trying to avoid a read that deals with some heavier issues.
COMPATIBLE WITH: Brookland, Life of Pi, and Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons.