This Week Paperback Trade Fiction Weeks on List
1 WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, by Sara Gruen. (Algonquin, $13.95.) Distraught after the death of his parents, a young veterinary student helps save a Depression-era circus.
Sunday Book Review
On our first date, my husband took me to see Tod Browning’s “Freaks,” a 1932 horror film with a distinctly Diane Arbus feel that takes a voyeuristic delight in dwarfs, fat ladies and other sideshow improbabilities. Sara Gruen’s arresting new novel, “Water for Elephants,” explores similar subject matter — the pathetic grandeur of the Depression-era circus. And like Browning, Gruen infuses her audacious material with a surprisingly uplifting strain of sentimentality.
Terence W. Bailey
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
By Sara Gruen.
Illustrated. 335 pp. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. $23.95.
“Water for Elephants” begins violently and then veers into weirder terrain. Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student at Cornell, discovers that his parents have been killed in a car accident. Aimless and distraught, he climbs aboard a train that happens to be carrying the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, and inveigles a job as an animal doctor. His responsibilities draw him into the unpredictable orbit of August Rosenbluth, the circus’s mercurial menagerie director, and his beautiful wife, Marlena, whose equestrian act attracts enthusiastic crowds.
Jacob immerses himself in the bizarre subculture of acrobats, aerialists, sword swallowers and lion tamers, mastering a vernacular that reflects a rigid caste system. Ringling Brothers is nicknamed “Big Bertha,” performers are “kinkers” and members of the audience are always “rubes.” When an aged Jacob observes a contemporary circus, he sees children carrying blinking toys: “Bet their parents paid an arm and a leg for them, too. Some things never change. Rubes are still rubes, and you can still tell the performers from the workers.”
The troupe crisscrosses the country cannibalizing acts that have gone bankrupt in the Depression-era economy. After Uncle Al, the autocratic ringmaster, purchases Rosie, an elephant with an unquenchable thirst for lemonade and the inability to follow the simplest command, Benzini Brothers looks doomed. How Jacob coaxes Rosie to perform — thereby saving the circus — lies at the heart of the novel.
Gruen, whose first novel was “Riding Lessons,” turns horses and other creatures into sympathetic characters. According to an author’s note, she studied elephant body language and behavior with a former handler at the Kansas City Zoo. The research pays off. August’s mistreatment of Marlena pales beside the visceral wallop of his nonchalant cruelty toward Rosie: “I look up just as he flicks the cigarette. It arcs through the air and lands in Rosie’s open mouth, sizzling as it hits her tongue. She roars, panicked, throwing her head and fishing inside her mouth with her trunk. August marches off. I turn back to Rosie. She stares at me, a look of unspeakable sadness on her face. Her amber eyes are filled with tears.”
Second-rate and seedy, Benzini Brothers suffers a collective inferiority complex (no one is permitted to utter the word “Ringling” in Uncle Al’s presence). When Lovely Lucinda, the 400-pound fat lady, dies suddenly, Uncle Al orchestrates a funeral procession led by 24 black Percherons and an army of mourners competing for the three dollars and bottle of Canadian whiskey promised to whoever puts on the best show. “You’ve never seen such grief — even the dogs are howling.”
Gruen’s circus, with its frankly mercantile morality, symbolizes the warped vigor of capitalism. No matter how miserable or oppressed, the performers love the manufacturing of illusion, sewing a new sequined headdress for Rosie or feeding the llamas as men die of starvation in a devastated America. August’s paranoid schizophrenia feels emblematic — an indictment of a lifetime spent feigning emotions to make a buck.
At its finest, “Water for Elephants” resembles stealth hits like “The Giant’s House,” by Elizabeth McCracken, or “The Lovely Bones,” by Alice Sebold, books that combine outrageously whimsical premises with crowd-pleasing romanticism. But Gruen’s prose is merely serviceable, and she hurtles through cataclysmic events, overstuffing her whiplash narrative with drama (there’s an animal stampede, two murders and countless fights). She also asserts a grand passion between Jacob and Marlena that’s never convincingly demonstrated.
Black-and-white photographs of real American circus scenes from the first half of the century are interspersed throughout the novel, and they brilliantly evoke the dignified power contained in the quieter moments of this unusual brotherhood. The grainy photos capture the unexpected daintiness of an elephant disembarking from a train, the symmetry of a marching band, a gaggle of plumed showgirls stepping gingerly across a patchy lawn and the haunting solitude of an impeccably dressed cook.
Circuses showcase human beings at their silliest and most sublime, and many unlikely literary figures have been drawn to their glitzy pageantry, soaring pretensions and metaphorical potential (Marianne Moore leaps to mind). Unsurprisingly, writers seem liberated by imagining a spectacle where no comparison ever seems inflated, no development impossible. For better and for worse, Gruen has fallen under the spell. With a showman’s expert timing, she saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale.
Review by ELIZABETH JUDD
Published: June 4, 2006
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