Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a very character-driven book. But that means it's not the type of book I typically read: plot-driven science fiction, thriller, or fantasy. I guess I am glad it seemed to develop a sort of plot after a while. It's also a good thing that most of the characters are interesting and distinct. I ultimately found it to be quite a compelling story--at least part of it.
The part I found compelling was the circus part, the part set in the past, the part that dominates the book. The circus part is set in the Great Depression. This has the risk of being overly familiar and overdone, since both have been covered by probably hundreds of previous books and movies. Yet the author does a fine job of keeping her characters and situations just far enough out of stereotype to pull the reader into a fascinating world and keep them there.
The trouble I had with the book was the framing story that is set in a nursing home in present day. I felt like it diluted the parts set in the circus. The characters here felt a little flat and the situations a bit contrived. Really? The circus comes to town and sets up its tent across the street from where a former circus worker is living? Really? There are also several unresolved plot threads in this part of the story, which I have determined I'll just have to live with. My dissatisfaction with this aspect of the book was exacerbated real-life synchronicity of dealing with parents and other family members residing in such places.
One minor oddity of the book is that it's written in a sort of present tense ("He greets me with an awkward nod...", rather than "greeted"). I think this is an attempt to emphasize the presentation of the story as memoir, as a story being told. But it's a bit of a distraction until the reader adapts to it.
Even though this isn't the sort of book I usually read, I had intentions of picking up Water for Elephants long before I knew a film based on it was coming out. I wanted to read it because it is an example of a story written during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I wanted to see a story that began life during that 30 day scramble for words and made it into print. Having the film coming out just made it that much more urgent to read the book first.
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