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Book Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Posted by iaam
Wednesday, April 20, 2011

   In this historical romance novel, we follow Jacob, a veterinary student at Cornell University who drops out after hearing of his parents’ death. He then wanders without direction until he comes across the Benzini Brothers circus, where his real life begins.
     The book holds dozens of personalities that enchant the reader, but none like the main character and his beloved. Jacob and Marlena represent one of the most magical couples among those of the modern era and millions of other books. Although their story may portray the cliché of a forbidden love, two people fighting for what they desire, their particular personalities bring something completely different.
   When we imagine them, we feel as if they’re real. Jacob Jankowski, our narrator and the main character, is presented to us with two physical appearances. There is the young man: brown hair, brown eyes and still in his twenties, and then, we have the man in the present: the Jacob that is 93 years old and leads the story. He is, at every age, a very emotional man. He isn’t afraid to love and is sure of his feelings, following them without question. Because of this his reactions are strong and immediate. He is a planner and thinks things through but he also believes strongly in his feelings as he fights for his happiness.
     After Jacob drops out of veterinary school and arrives at the circus, he meets Marlena and the loss he felt when his parents passed lessens. For most of the book, what he seeks is Marlena’s love, and a way to get her off her abusive husband August’s clutches. His heart screams “MARLENA,” but his head sees her with August.
     True love for him is overwhelming, it fills his body and becomes him, and it is all he wants. His only purpose is to have a full life with Marlena. He feels his love growing for her every day. He tries to kiss her and she pulls back, but when he sees she is unhappy, he tries again. (SPOILERS AHEAD!) His purpose, his conflict, and his leif motif (the thing that keeps him going on and leads the story), is the girl he meets in a circus. It is for these reasons that she becomes his wife and the mother of his children.     
   Marlena is beautiful, strong, and completely breathtaking. Unlike Jacob, we only know her as a woman with blonde hair, red lips, rosy cheeks whom Jacob finds completely irresistible. She also has a strong belief in her emotions, which makes her independent and sure of what she believes in. She isn’t the type to be manipulated by a man but her emotions don't let her see August as he really is, and instead she pities him. But her emotions are never a secret or a mystery to her. She knows when it is love or hate, pity or desire.
   Also unlike Jacob, her reactions aren’t quick. She takes time to decide what the best course of action is. When she does decide to respond, she does so aggressively, and is sure that it is the right decision.
     Before meeting Jacob, her purpose in life is being good at her job, making sure the animals she works with are cared for while ensuring that she was the best person she could be.
     However, the moment she sees the love of her life, everything changes. Like Jacob, she falls in love immediately, and although she tries to fight it because she is committed to her husband, she eventually gives in. She does love Jacob, but doesn’t know how to be with him in a real way but there is a happy ending. After many hardships, Jacob and Marlena live a long, happy life with each other.
     The relevance of this book isn't the story itself but the setting and the psychological environment. The description of the circus, the effect it has on each of the characters and the details the author gives us on how it is built are essential. It is set in the 1930s, an era when circuses would arrive to every town and entertain millions of people. The shows, the food, even something as simple as the tents, play an important part in society and culture itself.
     People changed when entering the circus and it gave them something to look forward to. This presence of the “Benzini Brothers Circus“ on towns transforms our reality. As it did with the crowds of the thirties, the description entertains us, makes us feel, and transports us to different time and place.
     The way the story is developed is very particular. The novel starts with Jacob as an old man, telling the audience of his life in the present, the way he spends his days in the hospital. Every two or three chapters the perspective switches. Although the life of Jacob as a young man is narrated to us in the form of a dream, we live it in the present. Three chapters later, we are taken back to the “real” world and we meet with Jacob as an old man living his dream in the circus once again.
     The mystical setting works its way through the entirety of the novel. The text is infused with circus talk, slang from the performers and workers. The circus changes the characters’ attitude and personality. We even see it is in Jacob who thinks things of importance can only be learned at school. That is until he is introduced to the pure magic of the circus where he realizes that what he loves is what must lead his life. This magic also makes all believe they are capable of anything and everything and most importantly, that there is no day like the present.
   Sara Gruen is an author that has an amazing ability with words. She plays with your feelings, telling you exactly what you want to hear. The detailed descriptions are exquisite. Gruen gives you a million eyes, a thousand noses, and a hundred ears. You are able to see each event, each breath of each character, from all possible points of view. When read aloud each syllable comes out of your mouth and slips around your tongue as naturally and as effortlessly as if they had been there all along.
   Language makes this book extraordinary. It is what leads Jacob to kiss Marlena and her to kiss him back. It is what makes Rosie, the beautiful elephant, seem human. It is what compels the reader to fall hopelessly in love with the novel.

Watch the movie trailer of Water for Elephants here and share your comments to let us know what you think.

Escribo para vaciar mi mente y llenar mi corazon.
(I write to empty my head and to fill my heart)

Olga Gonzalez Latapi
México City

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