Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006, 331 pages
I wanted an easy reread this past week, a quick escape into another world. It’s been a few years since I first read Water for Elephants, but I couldn’t put it down the first time and I was craving that momentum again. The second read was almost as good as the first and since a truly great novel would be even better the second time around, I can’t really give this one the highest possible marks. But it’s a personal favorite for sure and one I’ll recommend – with some caveats – to fiction lovers, especially those who like stories about animals, as I’ve found I do.
It’s depression-era New York. A college student is about to take his final exams at Cornell University when a family tragedy sends him on the open road alone. He hops a train – a circus train, of course – and the summer that follows crams in enough adventure to fill the Big Top several times over. There’s sex and there’s violence, more than my taste would prefer, but there’s love and kindness and beauty too. Picture an eccentric bunch of circus carnies trying to scrape a living out of a dead economy. Picture an upstanding near-graduate from an Ivy League school sharing half a boxcar with a midget clown and his dog. Picture a sequined beauty riding pure white horses and a half-mad animal trainer tricking newbies into feeding the lions by hand. And every night the circus train hurtles down the tracks toward the next town, crawling with the boss's henchmen assigned to toss working men out of cars when there’s not enough pay to go around. All the while, college boy is falling in love with two ladies: the woman riding the horses, and the fifty-three year old elephant.
At the end of the novel Sara Gruen includes an author’s note about some real life elephants whom she read about and who inspired her character, Rosie. It was these anecdotes that tipped the scales for me from liking this book to really loving it. Though it’s fiction through and through, Gruen picked tidbits from circus history to make her story ring true. Knowing that things like that actually did happen makes the farfetched parts seem believable too.
I’ve become more discerning as I’ve gotten older, and a little more picky about the moral content of a novel. This one disappointed on that front. At the heart of the story is an illicit romance that’s poorly justified. So for that reason, I hesitate to recommend the book wholeheartedly. But Gruen’s thesis is noble: take care of the weak, and the weak will take care of you. Kindness wins. It’s got a happy ending and a likable supporting cast. It’s fun and quick and a bit like hopping a circus train yourself: be prepared to be swept off for a wild ride.