Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Review: Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

Date Finished: 13/11/2015
2006 • 414 pages • Rating ★★

This is one of those incredibly popular novels that have been published in the last ten years which I somehow never got around to reading until now, not even when the film adaptation was released. I'll be honest, there are a lot of books like this on my TBR list and so I'm about a decade behind everybody else. But I'm slowly rectifying my slackness and aiming to steadily make my way towards being on the same level as everyone else. And so I decided to pick up Water For Elephants.

I've only ever read one other novel based in a circus, which, as you may have already guessed, is Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. I read it some years ago so my memory of the plot and the characters is a bit sketchy, but I remember enjoying fairly well and I need only refer back to my trusty GoodReads rating to see that I gave it four stars. I knew before I picked up Water For Elephants that this was going to be a completely different reading experience to The Night Circus; Gruen's novel is a fictional yet realistic portrayal of human experience compared to Morgenstern's magical realism.

In retrospect I think that's what I enjoyed about the novel; the realistic telling of a historic period. Set in 1930's America during Prohibition and the Depression, the story isn't centred during a time where I can wholeheartedly say that everything is 100% accurate. I mean, I watched Boardwalk Empire but that's pretty much the extent of my knowledge. The travelling circus in Depression-era America isn't my strong point, but it felt believable and had enough well-rounded characters for me to accept and understand the world of the novel.

Personally, I really enjoy characters that have a bit of an edge to them. For me, this was August, since from pretty much the get go you never quite know what he's going to say or do next. Despite Jacob being the protagonist and it being the story of his experience of working and living within the circus, I found August to be the more interesting character. He may be the villain of the story but he was the centre of all the drama and the action that made the bulk of the plot. It was the flaws of his character which made him all the more interesting and believable and I thought Gruen did a good job of depicting the fragility of human nature.

You may wonder then, why only three stars? To be fair, this isn't really the fault of the novel. It took me much longer than it should have done to read this because I've found myself in a bit of a reading slump since late October, meaning that I read the first half in sporadic chunks rather than steadily timed chapters. In all, this probably cast a dampener on the experience because I didn't feel fully engrossed in the plot until maybe two-thirds of the way through. In the end however, this was a nice little read. It's perhaps the kind of book you'd take away with you on holiday or pick up if you fancy escaping the norm for a while. I know most fiction has that effect on book lovers, but this feels more like running away and joining the circus - without actually moving from your bed.
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