I really wanted to like this book, truly I did. I love circuses and I’m a sucker for a love story (in case you haven’t noticed already) but this one was trite from beginning to drawn-out end. The only interesting character was the “villain” and his complexity was written off as symptoms of mental illness. In the hands of another writer this may have been a romantic and gripping page-turner but sadly, Sara Gruen fails to make this story interesting regardless of its setting within a 1930s circus and its story of forbidden love.
What should have been a lush, detailed landscape of a crime-ridden, Prohibition and Great Depression-touched circus train becomes simply a list of characteristics in the inexpert hands of Gruen, who seems to have copied circus facts straight from a Wikipedia entry. The result is anything but bewitching. Instead of feeling entranced by an old, faded photograph, I felt like Gruen just thought the 1930s seemed nice and picked it arbitrarily for the setting of her novel. Nothing about the era, save for the obvious aspects of the Prohibition and Great Depression (speakeasies and beggars figure prominently), is relevant to the characters’ storylines or personalities.
Jacob Jankowski, the protagonist and narrator of the story, is a twenty-three-year-old son of Polish immigrants and a student of veterinary studies at Cornell University. When his parents die suddenly in a car crash (yes, it’s that mediocre) and his home is conveniently repossessed by the bank (it is the Depression, after all) Jacob decides to jump a train, and finds, upon his graceless arrival, that he has inadvertently joined the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a second-tier circus run by a heartless gangster. All of these aspects of the plot sound great in summary, but when reading, I found them flat and dull. Jankowski is a boring character. He has no depth and just wanders through the book while things happen to him, and readers are told what he is like. “He loves animals. He is a virgin. He is naïve. He must live up to his parents’ legacy,” is what the characterization reads like. Jacob is as flat as the paper upon which his character is written.
And Marlena is just as bad. She’s a beautiful circus performer married to a paranoid schizophrenic, and Jacob falls in love with her inexplicably, possibly because she’s just as boring as he is. The characters are utterly forgettable with the possible exception of August, the aforementioned paranoid schizophrenic who suffers from bouts of intense cruelty toward animals and humans alike. August’s actions, while interesting, form the only captivating episodes of the first two-hundred-odd pages, which ramble on like an encyclopedia of a 1930s circus. The circus setting and its details are explained to the reader in an annoying question-and-answer format, with one circus veteran invariably answering Jacob’s deadpan questions without pause. I think this novel could have benefited from a third-person close point of view rather than Jacob’s first-person; the intimacy with Jacob could have been preserved and the narrative would have been more elegant.
The 1930s storyline is punctuated by the ninety-year-old Jacob Jankowski’s emotional turmoil while living in a nursing home. These parts of the book are heartbreaking, as we watch Jankowski’s mind slowly deteriorate. His wife (spoiler alert: it’s Marlena) has died and his family (children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren) rarely visit. Despite the poignance of Jacob’s sad old age, the two stories are incongruous; whereas the circus story is full of hope and a sense of expectancy, the contemporary narrative just seems like a set-up for the ending of the novel, which is juvenile.
Everything just seemed obviously contrived. There were no risks. Readers learn early in the novel, from Jankowski’s contemporary narrative, that he had married Marlena, so the ending was effectively ruined, and the only obstacle to Jacob and Marlena’s union is her husband, and he is taken care of in the most boring way possible that requires no emotional or physical effort on the parts of either Jacob or Marlena, and is therefore completely without danger. The characters get away scot-free, and everyone lives happily ever after. I hated it.
Gruen created thinly drawn characters and plunked them down in the Thirties because she liked the idea of it. Actually, on second thought, the best character was Rosie the elephant. She was stubborn, brave, and tragic all at once, displaying a depth of feeling and complexity that the human characters conspicuously lacked.
For contrast I offer another contemporary circus-oriented novel, The Night Circus, which also features forbidden love and a turn-of-the-century circus but everything about that book engages your senses; you can smell the circus, see the striped tents, taste the popcorn and caramel apples, and hear the eerie music. Water for Elephants just reminded me how awful it is to get old and to never put my parents in a home.
Gruen, S. (2006) Water for Elephants. New York, NY: Workman Publishing.