Water for Elephants: A Novel
Algonquin Books, 2007
352 pp., $15.95
Reviewed by Betty Smartt Carter
A Funhouse Mirror
I've always thought of the circus as working-class entertainment, but it's not so much that way nowadays, at least at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. For what it costs to see the Greatest Show on Earth, you could just about take your family into space. Ordinary people still go, but they have to stop at Advance America on the way and get a 900 percent loan. Well, that's all right with me. My one dim memory of the Ringling Brothers has me sitting up among the gargoyles at the Richmond Coliseum, peering through cloudy binoculars at Gunther Gebel-Williams and a couple of ant-sized lions.
No, for low-brow thrills, I prefer a small-time traveling circus, the kind where you pay next to nothing for a ticket but you get to sit you right on the edge of the ring, I mean close enough to smell the whiskey on the clown's breath, or touch the cellulite on the fat lady's knees—except she's not the Fat Lady per se, she's the tightrope walker, or the chihuahua tamer, or something. If you're lucky, there's a family of acrobats with a pregnant mom doing contortions and a hairy dad juggling the two year-old twins on his feet (yes, those are worry lines around his eyes).
The circus in Sara Gruen's novel, Water for Elephants, is hardly a small-time outfit. With its own train, an exotic animal menagerie and beautiful team of horses led by the lovely Marlena, the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth aims to rival Ringling in dusty Depression-era grandeur. Yet real prestige eludes Uncle Al, the ringmaster, who has built up his motley show by hiring performers and freaks on the cheap from other circuses fallen on hard times. Al's newest acquisition may be an expensive mistake: an elephant named Rosie who can't follow a single verbal command but knows how to stir up chaos. When the lemonade disappears from the juice joint and Al punishes the roustabouts, somebody stakes out the mixing vat and catches Rosie sneaking in to have a nip. This may sound funny, but it earns the poor elephant a beating from her sadistic trainer, August, who's only a little rougher on the animals than on Marlena, his unfortunate wife.
The source for all of this information is Marlena's secret admirer, Jacob Jankowski, a vet school dropout who joins Benzini Brothers after hopping the circus train. Jacob comes from a middle-class Catholic family, but like Dorothy Gale's cyclone or Alice's rabbit hole, the circus train flings him far from his familiar life into a world of bizarre pleasures and dangers. He discovers sex in the cooch tent, gets his comeuppance from a vengeful dwarf, and longs for true love with the dignified Marlena, who languishes in her awful marriage like a princess in a tower. When rescue arrives, it will be the gift of a creature who is more intelligent than anybody has yet guessed—even Jacob, who's figured out that Rosie's first language is Polish, and that she enjoys liquor even more than lemonade.
Rosie is my favorite character in this book, and I wish there were more of her. I suppose it would be hard to write a whole novel from the point of view of an elephant, but I do think that Gruen's strength lies in her easy sympathy with animals. As far as humans go, she's adept with circus freaks, bums, and other social outcasts, but her writing gets clumsy when her hero and heroine take the stage, especially in love scenes. Part of the problem is Jacob. I hate to say that he doesn't "work" for me: characters jump from a writer's imagination like Athena from Zeus, and if Jacob Jankowski strikes me as too feminine and contemporary, what right do I have to argue with his creator? But I'd have liked him a lot better if Gruen let us see more of what made him who he is, what influences (besides the abrupt, almost superfluous death of both his parents at once) created such a sensitive young man at a time when most males aimed for swagger. I wanted to picture Jacob as Henry Fonda, but I kept seeing Leonardo DiCaprio.
A few such complaints notwithstanding, Water for Elephants is a fine novel for people who read fiction in order to visit other worlds and times (and there must be a lot of them out there, since this book has been selling faster than you can say "Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages"—I've even read talk of a movie). Sara Gruen decided to write her circus novel after seeing photographs from a book on the history of the circus in The Chicago Tribune. I don't know if those are the same portraits that appear in her book, but if so, I understand her fascination: there's an air of tragic dignity in the black-and-white images of freaks, showgirls, and animal tamers from that lost world. She brings them all back to life pretty well, resurrecting a fair amount of Depression Era despair along with her toothless lions and bearded ladies.
And what is a circus, anyway, but a funhouse mirror version of the rubes in the audience? You could say something very similar about a bestselling novel.
Betty Smartt Carter is a novelist and Latin teacher living in Alabama.
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