Jenn said it was one of her favourite books, and who am I to doubt someone who, it has been decreed, is my reading soulmate?, and secondly because it came with a recommendation from none other than the great man himself, Stephen King. I mean, if anyone can think of better reasons to read a book, then I'd like to hear them. I didn't think so.
Water for Elephants is basically the story of Jacob Jankowski, a young man who runs away and joins the circus after the unexpected deaths of his parents, and the essential destruction of everything that he thought was going to happen to him in his life. At the circus, he falls in love with both a woman and an elephant, witnesses horrific mistreatment of animals, and learns a lot, I think, about himself and about human nature. Interestingly, though, whilst the story of the circus is central to the book, it is actually set up in a similar way to The Green Mile (by the great admirer of this book, Stephen King!) in that it begins with Jacob in an old people's home, barely even living anymore but merely existing, and really who can blame him for reminiscing about his far more exciting past?
In a sense though, and certainly to me, the parts with present day Jacob were almost more interesting, and definitely more poignant than the parts in the circus. In these, he thinks about what it means to get old, how people write you off and just leave you in a Home, without even considering all the interesting things that might have happened in your past. It's a bleak view of old age, but also a pretty accurate one at least in my eyes- I have found myself looking at old people with a certain sense of pity because I feel that they must be sad to be so old, without ever thinking that they could have had the most exciting lives, or at least the best kind of lives, and may in fact feel entirely fulfilled. I think it's true for everyone that they would be horrified to think of being treated like an old person, even when they are old, and this is something that is definitely true for Jacob.
Just because I found the present day parts of the novel to be insightful, however, does not mean that the bulk of the book, set in the midst of the Depression in America, was not completely entertaining. Because I'm a tiny bit of a book snob, I'm going to be honest and say that at first, I was a bit disdainful of the writing in the book, because, let's face it, it's pretty simplistic. But, I got over that, and focused on the story, and from that point I was completely absorbed into it- I loved Jacob, completely and utterly, and was rooting for him and all his friends from the very beginning. On a similar path, I utterly hated August, husband of the woman Jacob loves, Marlena, and all-round bad guy- would you judge me if I said that I hated his mistreatment of the animals more than his mistreatment of humans though? I just found it all so awful and sad and I literally just wanted him to DIE. The fact that he is played by Christoph Waltz in the film (which I haven't seen because, ugh, Robert Pattinson) seems like a perfect casting choice, however, and I think you'll agree with me if you've seen Inglourious Basterds.
I didn't think this book was perfect, much as I enjoyed it, and I think a lot of it had to do with the two different time zones of the story (well, not time zones, but you know what I mean). Knowing that the main character has survived to a grand old age makes it difficult to feel tense about things like his travelling along the roof of a train while it's in motion; and while there are other events where outcomes are not so clear, there is a sense in which everything will eventually be ok because we know that Jacob survives. Another thing that bugged me, although I know there is a very good reason for it being written in such a way, is that it is all in the present tense. I understand completely the reason for this, because it's clear that present-day Jacob remembers the events as clearly as if they were happening right now, but it's just a way of writing that annoys the crap out of me, for reasons I don't even know.
Apart from that, though, can I fault the story? Not really! I think it does a great job of developing a love affair (one place where there is tension), and most importantly it really creates an atmosphere of what it would be like to run away and join the circus. It inspires compassion, hatred, awe, and love in its readers (or at least in me) and even has the adorable element, that really got me, of a baby chimp who walks around with Jacob as he does his rounds and wants cuddles all the time and OH MY GOD I WANT ONE! Add that to some really interesting insight into the misery of aging, and what's not to like? As for the writing, Shakespeare it ain't. But who really wants Shakespeare every day? It's perfect for a fast read, and, if you like a bit of animal abuse to spice up your day, it's probably even good as a beach read. But then again, maybe not...