GRUEN, SARA. Water for Elephants. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-56512-560-5. Pp. 350. $13.95.
Am I crazy? Am I seeing things that no one else sees? Let me talk a little about William Styron's masterpiece Sophie's Choice. It's the story of, among other things, Stingo, Nathan, and Sophie. Nathan and Sophie are a couple. They have befriended their neighbor Stingo. Stingo fears and respects Nathan and is in love with Sophie. Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic. Now I want to talk about Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen's bestseller. It's the story of, among other things, Jacob, August, and Marlena. August and Marlena are a couple. They have befriended their fellow circus-guy Jacob. Jacob fears and respects August and is in love with Marlena. August is a paranoid schizophrenic. Or maybe I'm the paranoid schizophrenic, since the similarities are so clear to me, and yet have never been brought up by anyone that I can think of. Or is it just that plagiarism isn't so great an offense these days? Sure, one book is about the Holocaust and takes place in a boarding house in Brooklyn while the other takes place in a traveling circus. Marlena may not be Polish, but Jacob is. Both August and Nathan are Jewish and in love with non-Jews. In both cases this has caused strife in their and their loved ones' lives. To sum up, I plan on rewriting Shakespeare's Hamlet, but it's going to take place at the aquarium so no one will notice that I don't have an imagination of my own.
On the other hand, Water for Elephants is a well-researched piece of historical fiction, set during the Great Depression in, as I've already mentioned, a traveling circus. Jacob Jankowski (he's Polish, remember) has just learned of his parents' death in a car accident and, consequently, walks out of his vet school exams at Cornell. Instead he performs that cinematic stereotype and jumps a moving train, finding himself face to face with a circle of toughs playing poker and drinking extract (Prohibition, remember?). They threaten to throw him over board, and then for some reason don't, because if they did there would be no book. They're with the "Benzini Brothers' Most Spectacular Show on Earth," and they decide to help out Jacob and try to get him a job. His being an almost-vet is his ticket to the show and he falls under the tutelage of August and Marlena.
August is a jealous guy and, like Nathan before him, suspects an attraction between Jacob and Marlena. Marlena is one of the performers and her character is as obvious as the pink sequin costume she wears for her show. Unlike Sophie, Marlena is the most fragile, precious flowery cherub, her cheeks flushing and paling at the thought of sex or violence, two things that seem to be everywhere at the circus; the color of her cheeks is constantly in flux. But what's more annoying than her delicate disposition is the fact that she's always crying or about to cry. How Jacob finds the strength to fall in love with someone whose face is always puckered is beyond me. Fortunately there is one strong female character in the book. Like Sophie, she's Polish and has suffered under some very bad men. Unlike Sophie, she's an elephant named Rosie. And a misunderstood one at that, like Dumbo. Did I mention that the circus manager and master of ceremonies, "Uncle Al," fits exactly the same physical characteristics as the one from Dumbo? Maybe I'm naive and all circus hosts look the same, but I can't help but be exasperated by Gruen's lack of imagination, or at least her inability to stray from what are only the most obvious tropes.
As it turns out, the most "real" chapters of the book are also the least interesting (and a lot like certain scenes from the movie The Notebook). Ninety-something-year-old Jacob is now residing in an assisted living facility. His wife (surprise, it's Marlena!) has already passed away, but his enduring love for her reawakens his memories of the days when they first knew each other, working at the circus. The narrative skips back and forth between the thirties and the present day, and while the circus parts are more fun to read, the old folks home sections are the most poignant. You kind of want to join in when Jacob breaks down and cries after learning his son forgot to come and take him to the circus.
To recapitulate: if one is not much of a reader, I recommend sitting down and watching Sophie's Choice, Dumbo, The Notebook, and a dash of Big Fish, preferably all at once. They actually made Water for Elephants into a movie, to be released this spring, which is probably how the book got back to the No. 1 bestseller spot. I'm not in the least surprised. Sara Gruen wrote the book to be made into a screenplay. Edward Cullen is playing Jacob. I always thought the cast of the "Twilight Saga" should run away and join the circus.