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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

April 25, 2011

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen was the second book my Brunch Book Club selected to read. I’d heard a ton about it because it was really popular at the bookstore, but had never read it. As an added bonus, the film was just released so next weekend we are planning to have brunch, chat about the book, and then go see the movie.

The novel started out great. The prologue is clever – it sets up the novel perfectly and really gets the reader hooked on learning the rest of the story. The rest of the novel is set up with two alternating(ish) stories – one story focuses on the young protagonist and the other tells of his life now, as a 90 year old.

We meet young Jacob when he is a veterinary student at Cornell. After a turn of events, he ends up on the train for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus. We see the ins and out of circus life, meet the animals and performers, and see Jacob learn to navigate the testy personalities on the road. Older Jacob is living in a nursing home, having some health issues, and awaiting a Sunday visit from his family.

Until at least half way through the novel, I was completely engaged – wondering where the story was headed, how the characters would play out, how the circus and its animals would fare. But then the novel just plummeted for me. Once the major romance begins – which just wasn’t very convincing to me – Jacob becomes this quintessential good guy with no depth. He’s romantic and perfect, says cheesy things, is always the perfect gentleman. He’s the type of protagonist whose only flaw is that he’s too in touch with his emotions. Barf.

I felt that the romance came out of nowhere. One minute Jacob kind of has a crush, and the next minute Marlena is professing her love for him – how very convenient for perfect little Jacob. There is one sex scene that is straight out of a trashy romance novel. I actually laughed out loud when I read it, it was so ridiculous.

There are kind of two endings – one to the Jacob/circus story and one for the Jacob/nursing home story. Both were pretty surprising with nice little twists. Many parts of the novel were clever, intriguing and funny, but overall I felt annoyed that there was a good story in there all covered up by a silly, overly dramatic romance.

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