water for elephants

November 8, 2008


Someone who loves books at least as much if not more than me lent this to me, and I started then put it on hold during my trip to Boston. Superficially it’s a circus love story, but it’s Gruen’s extensive background research that animates all the details of the train circus specifically and the depression era in America. I very much enjoyed the archival photos from real circuses – such as the Ringling Brothers – from that time that illustrate the book.

The story – of a young man who joins the circus after a family tragedy – takes off from page one and continues at breakneck speed until the very end. I have to confess I found the pace a little exhausting overall, especially the repeated episodes of the narrator’s being thumped then bouncing back, only to be thumped… again. Also, the narrative tool of having a 90-year old character tell the story in a series of flashbacks quickly got irritating at best, and was contrived at worst.

These two criticisms aside, the story itself convincingly conveys the magic of a brand-new love affair, which the backdrop of the variously ferocious, cheeky and gentle circus animals successfully enhances. And all the to-ing and fro-ing proves worthwhile as the book hurtles towards its surprisingly strong, neat ending. Good for bringing out the romantic in you, and, best of all as the interview with Gruen in the back reveals, many of the events, characters and elephants in the book were real, taken from her interviews with circus folk. Paradoxically, the historical setting made this book a little more magical for me.


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