check out my Water for Elephants review over on the Ultra Manly Book Club blog, or read it below. if you’re a dude, i recommend checking out the site.
Disclaimer: I feel I am required to adopt somewhat of a defensive persona when beginning this post. Yes. We are a bit embarrassed to have included this in our book club. However, part of our guidelines for iUMBC is that we are culturally aware of the “popular” books of the day. Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel, Water for Elephants, is considered by many to be “so hot right now. “ So hot, in fact, that felt the need to make a movie out of it starring the Twilight Heartthrob himself (who shall remain nameless due the fact that his name escapes me and I refuse to increase his popularity by Googling it). The convictions of those affiliated with iUMBC tend do disagree with this “so hot” notion. Also, this review contains *spoilers*.
The book’s protagonist goes by the name Jacob Jankowski, and although his surname would suggest it, he does not play hockey. Instead, Jankowski is a disgruntled old man living in a nursing home. The majority of the text is spent in Mr. Jankowski’s flashbacks to the time he spent in the circus as a college kid. In his final year of vet school tragedy strikes in his family and he copes with the difficulty by running away and boarding a circus train. Seems reasonable enough.
Through a series of events, young Jacob discovers himself working amongst the carnies. He is torn between the circus hierarchy: Workers and Performers. His friends are all workers; Camel, an old sick drunk addicted to cough syrup, and Kinko, a midget whom Jacob once encounters masturbating in their sleeping quarters. So awkward. The reader learns to love and cherish these two quirky men. The tension mounts when Jacob falls in love with a performer, Marlena, who rides an elephant in the circus finale. Unfortunately, Marlena is married to an abusive man, August, who is also Jacob’s boss.
Thus far, this book probably sounds fine, and I will admit that the first 2/3 of this book is decent. The tension builds, it’s an entertaining read, and there are even a couple split lips in the first 200 pages. It’s what happens next that derails this book completely.
The two most lovable characters are easily Camel and Kinko, and at this point in the novel they are both living with Jacob in a storage car near the back of the train. Camel has been poisoned by his cough syrup addiction and is losing feeling to his entire body. Jacob and Kinko are able to make contact with a relative of Camel’s who agrees to meet up with them on their tour and take Camel away to help him recover. Kinko has just overcome his initial hatred of Jacob (partially due to the embarrassment of being caught in the act), and is turning into a terrific companion. What’s going to happen with Camel? Are they going to make it to Camel’s cousin in time? What is Kinko’s roll going to be as the plot develops further?
The answers never come. One night, while Jacob sneaks off to the Performers’ cabin, the author decides that it would be a good idea to have the two most likable characters thrown off the train.
So that’s what happens. Rather than finish their story and have them play a role, their characters are just inexplicably killed off like the unnamed extras in a Predator movie. Only these aren’t just unnamed characters; they’re important names in the book who have storylines of their own. Rather than try and tie all the loose ends together in the end, Sara Gruen decides to take the easy way out and end all storylines that aren’t the sappy love story. It’s lazy writing and it can’t be tolerated.
Once Kinko and Camel were killed off it was easy to find issues with this book I suddenly hated. For example, it becomes very obvious that the inner monologues of Jacob are actually the creation of a female author. Gruen uses situations that play directly to a woman’s emotional state: cruelty to animals, an abusive husband, and a depressed old man who’s younger self was the vanquisher of both the animal cruelty and the domestic abuse.
No wonder women love Jacob Jankowski – he’s a sad old man (tear) whose 23-year-old self loves and cares for animals (sniff, sniff) and who rescues a woman from a psychotic abusive husband (more tears). Talk about dreamy…and a complete waste of my time. These scenarios don’t appeal to men. Don’t misunderstand me here – there are certainly ultra manly men who care about these things – but this is not the sort of thing that gets men amped about reading a novel. It’s geared to women, and it took a poor decision by the author to make that clear.
While iUMBC does not recommend this book to our followers, we do believe that bringing awareness is crucial. Read it if you must, but please continue to spread the word. This book is not well done and is far from manly.