I picked up a tattered copy of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen from a second-hand bookstore over the summer holidays. Mine is a paperback version, with a picture of Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon locked in a tender embrace on the front cover. I’d already seen the movie, which I enjoyed, and I wanted to see if the book was just as good.
Set in America in the 1930s, Water for Elephants follows the life of Jacob Jankowski, a young student born to Polish parents and studying to be a vet. His world is turned upside down when his parents both die in a car crash, and he runs away from his hometown to start a new life. Somehow, he ends up jumping on board a moving train, which he soon discovers is home to a travelling circus called “The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth”.
Before long he has been hired as the show’s vet and has been taken under the wing of equestrian manager August, a mentally unstable and intense character who happens to be married to the beautiful performer Marlena. As you can imagine an awkward love triangle ensues and the rest of the book is largely centred around Jacob’s desire to start a new life with Marlena, and August’s terrifying control over her, the animals and many of the show’s workers.
But it wouldn’t be called Water for Elephants without an elephant. The book’s fourth protagonist is Rosie, a large, stubborn, alcohol-drinking elephant with a penchant for mischief. I think the circus animals, especially Rosie, are what make this book special. Jacob and Marlena fall in love against the backdrop of an elephant and an array of other circus animals including horses, monkeys, lions, panthers and more.
All of these elements made for an excellent movie. I found it hugely entertaining to watch a circus come to life on the big screen, and I found Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Marlena very convincing – which made up for that fact that I found it hard to see Robert Pattinson as anything other than ‘Edward from Twilight’.
I think the fact that I had already seen the movie hugely influenced how much I enjoyed the book. Usually books offer more detail and depth than films. So I guess you could say, when I picked up Water For Elephants, I was looking for something extra. What was the book going to tell me that I didn’t pick up from the movie? As a New York Times Bestseller, I was expecting it to be fantastic. Instead, I read it with lukewarm appreciation.
I already knew what was going to happen at the end, which meant the story was robbed of suspense and mystery. The film was incredibly faithful to the book, so I didn’t get that ‘something extra’ that I was looking for. Instead I felt as though I was re-reading a story. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it – I just didn’t love it. And I wouldn’t feel compelled to read it again. My favourite aspect of the book was tapping more inside the head of 90-year-old Jacob, a cranky, cantankerous man, as he battled with nursing staff in his resting home and grappled with flashbacks to his time on the circus and falling in love with Marlena.
I wonder what my reading experience would have been like if I had not seen the movie first?
Whether you have seen the film or not, Water for Elephants makes a nice story. Sara Gruen writes with stunning simplicity, saying just enough but not too much. I enjoyed the conversational tone and found it incredibly easy-to-read. It is a good book for when you are on holiday, but if you’ve seen the movie just don’t expect it to be a page-turner.