Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen
Algonquin Books, 2006
Water for Elephants is a general fiction/historical novel set in a travelling circus at the time of the Great Depression. It made the number one spot on the New York Times Bestseller List for trade paperbacks, and has had good reviews on numerous other bestseller lists and from a multitude of critics.
This is the life story of Charlie O'Brien, a veterinary student in the early 1930s who accidently runs away with the circus. The circus is happy to find a vet and Charlie doesn't have anywhere else to go, so he stays on with them. He slowly discovers that this circus is somewhat troubled; the owner is a bit nuts, the ringleader is given to violent mood swings, and the cost management system is often unnecessarily violent. Charlie goes along with things -- after all, what else is he going to do? But as he gets more involved in the life of the workers and performers he starts to get more and more involved in the seedy underbelly of the circus -- wearing stolen clothes, protecting a sick worker from being thrown of a railroad trestle, and having an affair with a married performer.
All of this is alternated with commentary and events of the modern-day Charlie, who is now 90 years old and living in a nursing home. He is still active and intelligent, but is not enjoying the nursing home nor old age in general. He makes a nice, very crotchety, counterpart to the younger and more innocent Charlie of the 1930s.
This book is very popular, and came highly recommended by people who have better literary taste than I. I'm afraid that I didn't really like it, although it was enjoyable. I feel that I have generally read enough books about people having a hard life in the days of yore, and while I liked the circus lore and the historical aspects of the book, they were not enough of a hook to justify the retelling of such a familiar story line. That said, Charlie is an interesting character, the book is fast-moving and often gripping, and the author does an excellent job of painting a picture of the circus. It is also noteworthy that the titular elephant is an interesting and well-developed character.
If you like dramatic life stories and well-done historical fiction, you will probably enjoy this book. I personally like a little less drama and a little more speculative fiction in my novels, so I was a bit underwhelmed. (I suspect the fact that I am not particularly attracted by circuses may have something to do with that, too.) However, this is one of the more popular books in America at the moment, and is an easier and lighter read than, for example, The Help, while still having considerably better writing and characters than the new John Grisham or Dan Brown novels. This puts it in a good niche for anyone wanting to try out a new, and very popular, author.