Need an enjoyable read this summer? Try Water for Elephants (2006). Author Sara Gruen was a featured speaker at the 2011 AWP Conference held in Washington D.C. I was going to the event and curious to read her work to consider her talent. Consider the commercial success of The Lovely Bones or Secret Life of Bees and compare them to literary masterpieces like Middlesex or The Handmaid’s Tale. Why is literary fiction highly esteemed and what makes it “better than” projects which are merely commercial fiction? Does Sara Gruen write literary fiction or is her success due to the commercial popularity of her stories? Recent speakers at the Association of Writer’s and Programs include heavy weights, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Irving. If Gruen is grouped to speak among these greats, her writing should show the high-caliber of literary fiction.
The novel surrounds the circus life,1930, and Gruen’s strength is the construction of two characters. One is the elder narrator, Jacob Jankowski, and the second is Rosie, the pachyderm cow. The premise for her novel is unique and interesting with a historical edge that adds weight to an otherwise typical love-triangle plot. The story is told from two perspectives, the 90-year-old Mr. Jankowski as he grapples with his remaining days in a nursing home, and his former self within a flashback of his life as a vet in the circus. I enjoyed the older Jankowski much more than his younger self. For example, the geriatric version impatiently counts the minutes for his family to visit and escort him to the circus which arrives to town. It’s the impetus for all the memories of his early twenties when he ran away and joined the circus. Gruen did a great job creating a cantankerous character who, for all his bluff and animosity, is a gentle, scared man who is reduced to tears. I like how Gruen has the younger and older self run away and join the circus. It’s a nice package.
Sara Gruen managed to create another memorable character by personifying an elephant named Rosie. Gruen mentioned in her afterword that she discovered the story of an elephant that could only understand German. Those who tried to train her were disappointed and presumed she was an idiot. In the novel, Gruen created that interesting fact of history into a memorable character who responds to Polish. Gruen adds the menagerie of animals in a stampede as a lead up to the climax of the book. Is Water for Elephants literary fiction? No, I don’t think so. While I appreciated the culture of the circus, I thought the protagonist as the young narrator was flat. Also, the most intriguing character, the owner of the Benzini Circus, was a one-dimensional tyrant. His cruel treatment of everything around him including his wife made the love-triangle obvious. There is nothing wrong with being a successful, commercial fiction writer. Water for Elephants sustained my interest, and there were parts that shimmered with authenticity.
The book was better than Francis Lawrence’s 2011 film version whose highlight was actor Christoph Waltz. He added the believable depth that was missing from the book as the manic-depressive, alcoholic tyrant husband to his Barbie-doll wife played by Reese Witherspoon. He tried to stop younger Jankowski from stealing his wife. Robert Patterson, played the circus vet and completed the love triangle surprisingly well. Other strengths of the film were Rosie the elephant and watching the workers erect the circus tent. Overall, the movie was mediocre due to the banal script and lack of emphasis on the intriguing circus culture. I’d stick with the book. What did you think of the movie?