Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Review/Discussion: Water for Elephants- Sara Gruen

This book has been in our faces on "Must Read" and Bestseller lists for how long now?  I've been wanting to read it even though I wasn't exactly sure what it was about.  When I saw that it was a movie I decided it was the time, so I hit up my favorite e-book site and pirated myself a copy for my nook. (shhhh, don't tell the FBI.  But come on- I'm a SAHM with no income and literary addiction).

I liked the book, although parts of it let me down and  major part of it really gnawed at my fear and insecurites about aging.  I had very high expectations for this book, and no, I don't think I will see the movie.  Robert Pattinson pisses me off (although I do end up falling in love with him as Edward despite my attempts not too...but that's just because I love Edward so much...NOT RP! And I do try to resist the draw of the Twilight movies as long as I can, but I love those books and am surrounded by too many fanatics to resist opening weekend).

My book club already covered this book prior to my joining so I figured I'd use my blog as my outlet for this literary experience.  Maybe I'll make it a regular thing as I finish whatever it is I am currently reading.  This is just another piece of me I'd like to share.

I got the discussion questions online, HERE.

1. Water for Elephants moves between a story about a circus and a story about an old man in a nursing home. How do the chapters about the older Jacob enrich the story about Jacob’s adventure with the circus? How would the novel be different if Gruen had only written about the younger Jacob, keeping the story linear and never describing Jacob’s life as an old man?
Having the elderly Jacob relay pieces of the story helped drive home just how impactful his experience was.  Images and emotions stayed with him so intensely that he could call upon these memories so vividly, while at the same time be unable to remember names, events and conversations happening in the present.  Without the perspective of Jacob in his later years, the consequences and impact of events would have been lost.  His later reflections also helped paint the picture of how great his love for his wife was, which I don't think was told as well or as deeply by the younger Jacob.

2. Did the chapters about the nursing home change how you think about older people? In what ways are the doctors and nurses condescending? How is Rosemary different? How do you treat older people?
The nursing home chapters were very difficult for me.  I have an intense fear of age and mortality and Jacob's disgust for his elderly frame and abilities really hit the core of my anxieties.  I think the author did a good job capturing the dehumanization that happen in some nursing homes.  When I was pregnant with Oliver I was supporting a client in a nursing home and would see how terribly some of the CNA's would talk to and about patients.  They forgot that these are people and not a job, and while they might not be in  rush to put fresh sheets on a bed, the patient was inconvenienced because THIS IS THEIR LIFE.  They don't have the freedom to do what they want, when they want.  They rely on others.  The character of Rosemary was different in that she acknowledged and respected the rights of Jacob as a person and not just a job.

3. In chapter two, the twenty-three year old Jacob starts his story by telling us he is a virgin. From the cooch tent to the erections the older Jacob gets when being bathed, sexuality is woven into the whole story. Why do you think Gruen added these details? What role does sexuality play in Water for Elephants?
I think that Jacob's sexual inexperience and the experience he gained through the story are included to demonsrate the innocent sort of person he was.  Also, the more sexual experience he had, the more confrontational and combative he seemed; he was losing some innocence and learning to survive in the evironment.  Jacob's erections as an old man, I think, demonstrate the power sex had over his life, and also his lack of control over his body and it's functions.

4. When you first read the Prologue, who did you think murdered the man? Were you surprised by who the actual murderer was?
I think the prologue was cleverly written so that it would lead the reader to assume that Marlena was the murderess.  I have been meaning to re-read it having now finished the book and learning that Rosie, the elephant, is in reality the offender.  I was surprised, but glad.  Having thought Marlena had murdered someone tainted her character a bit for me.  While I can justify her actions had it been her, it changed what I thought of her as a mother later in her life.  I can understand the explanation Jacob gave for keeping Rosie's action a secret, I think his need to hold on to this truth was a little overexaggerated.

5. The book begins with a quote from Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant…An elephant’s faithful—one hundred percent!” What is the role of faithfulness and loyalty in Water for Elephants? How do different characters define loyalty? (Jacob, Walter, Uncle Al).
Loyalty and faithfulness play a part in developing character dynamics and giving the reader a morality to relate to.  Jacob, being the innocent and good character, is faithful to almost everyone.  He cannot abandon the animals, and he remembers the things that others did for him- like Camel getting him onto the show.  Walter, the jaded yet ultimately good character, also displays an authentic loyalty to others, but only after establishing an equal footing.  Once he has humiliated Jacob so that he no longer feels inferior, he is willing to help his friend at his own risk.  Uncle Al, the antagonist, is loyal only to those who benefit him.  Ultimately, that means only to himself.

I liked the use of this quote to open the book.  It also illustrated Rosie's ability to think, feel and react.  She protected Marlena, who was good to her, and she destroyed August, who had harmed her.

6. Why does Jacob get so mad about Mr. McGuinity lying about carrying water for elephants? Do you see and similarities of temperament between the young Jacob and the old Jacob?
His experience with the circus was so profound, his life took shape around it, that to lie about also coming from the same place was offensive to him.  McGuinty's lying about having a history with the circus cheapend Jacob's own very real and in some cases traumatic history with it.  Whether in youth or old age Jacob's character presented as the type to value honesty, and at both stages of his life he was quick to take offense and put a barrier against what he saw as wrong.

7. In what ways is Water for Elephants a survival story? A love story? An adventure?
The stories of several of the characters, (Jacob, Marlena, Rosie, Walter, and other more minor characters) reflected the survival elements of the story- each one acted in a way that bought them relative peace in their stations.  Jacob learned to keep a watchful eye on August and Uncle Al, Marlena learned to pacify her abusive husband, Walter knew how to keep under the radar and how to interact with others.  From what I had heard, the novel is billed as, above all else, a love story.  There are definitely romantic aspects that play a very large part in the story- Jacob and Marlena's relationship, but also Jacob's love for his parents and for the animals, but I was a bit disappointed in what Sarah Gruen wa able to achieve romantically with this novel.  I can justify the story as an adventure in that Jacob found himself surviving in circumstances he hadn't expected for himself.  Without realizing it, he had placed himself in a situation in which he needed to tread carefully and think deeply.  There are also the plot lines which put him as a hero saving other characters from their misfortunes which makes this story an adventure.

8. Water for Elephants has a happy ending for Jacob, but not for many other characters. Discuss Walter and Camel’s fates. How does tragedy fit into the story?
Walter and Camel's fates were very disturbing and sad, but I think they were necessary to make the story real.  Unfortunately, tragedy is real.  If the book ended with unicorns and rainbows (which let's be honest, sometimes we need a book with an all around happy ending), all of the drama and tragedy of the story would be negated.  The author created such a hostile setting for story that the demise of these characters only seemed to make sense...sad as they were.

9. There is an “us and them” mentality in the circus between performers and workers. How does Jacob bridge these two classes of people? Why does each group hate another group? Does the circus merely mirror society in an exaggerated way?
Jacob belonged to neither group and so walked the line between the two.  His skills were essential to the performers and his background put him in a postition to relate to the workers.  The two groups hated each other because that's exactly how societies work.  One group feels entitled and superior, and the other feels overworked, undervalued and mistreated.  The circus was able to mirror society by having a class system, although in this mobile society they were made to cohabitate in very close conditions for very exaggerated conflict.

10. Are you satisfied with the end?
The part of me that hates aging and nursing homes was very happy with the ending.  The realistic side of me said "Really?! WTF?!"   I liked how the 30's portion of the story was wrapped up, as fantastic as it was.
11. In the Author’s Note, Gruen writes that many of the details in the story are factual or come from circus workers’ anecdotes. These true stories include the hippo pickled in formaldehyde, the deceased fat lady being paraded through town and an elephant who repeatedly pulled out her stake and stole lemonade. Gruen did extensive research before writing Water for Elephants. Was her story believable?
Parts were and parts weren't.  Uncle Al's character was unfortunately believable to me.  As was August (however I'm not sure he was schizophrenic, I'd say more anitsocial).  Being able to walk away with a pregnant woman, a dozen horses, a mourning dog, an elephant and chimpanzee...and having things fall into place rather easily- that part was a little harder to swallow.  BUT, that's the great part about reading a book isn't it?  It takes you away from reality for a little bit.  (I hosted a meeting for my bookclub on The Gargoyle and everyone harped on the fantasy elements they had trouble believing...I on the other hand believed all of it because it was a book and therefor I can. Great read by the way, totally recommend it).

12. Rate Water for Elephants on a scale of 1 to 5.
I give it a 3.75-4 rating.  Very good, not quite great.  Like I said before I had higher expectations about the romantic elements of the book that simply were not met.  I get that the characters loved each other, but not why.  Sarah Gruen failed, in my opinion, to establish an emotional footing for Jacob's infatuation for Marlena and for her reciprocated feelings.  The survival story in this book redeemed it for me.  Jacob's care for the animals and his assimilation into the shows environment were more enjoyable for me.

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