Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

There is a certain genre of novels, call it Book Club Fiction, that sell well due to buzz, word of mouth, and occasionally Oprah. These books come as trade paperbacks bearing four hundred plus pages of character-driven artful prose. There will be passages so lovely you'll want to bob along in the prose's warm embrace, and there will be turns so emotionally grueling you'll feel gutted and drained. There will be love, there will be pain, there will quite possibly be rape, and in the end there will be redemption, and all of this will be tied up in multiple layers ripe for discussion.

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants really wants to be the latest sensation in Book Club Fiction, and at a glance it certainly looks the part. It comes bearing book club buzz, and even contains an interview with the author and an accompanying discussion guide. Much like prior Book Club sensation The Kite Runner, Water for Elephants is a coming of age story set in a meticulously researched historical environment, a tale of one man's growth mixed with equal parts love and tragedy. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll recommend the book to everyone at the salon.

There certainly is much to love about Water for Elephants, to be sure. Gruen masterfully resuscitates depression-era traveling circus life from the footnotes of history, and the result is a seductive world of dirty glamor that pulses with sleazy life. Gruen thoroughly paints this historical setting with a stunning attention to detail, and I could easily have spent twice as long in her carefully crafted universe of rubes and roustabouts, of side shows and speakeasies.

Problem is, a stage is set only to tell a story, and that's exactly where the cracks begin to show. Gruen's prose is at best serviceable and at worst prone to cliché, and for a three-time author she has a surprising tendency to tell not show. All too often the book feels condensed, with certain passages reading like expository Cliffs Notes summaries for what should have been fully-written chapters. It's not uncommon for a week to artlessly pass in the blink of a paragraph, robbing readers of the chance to play bystander to unfolding events.

Similarly, Gruen doesn't seem interested in any of the characters that aren't encased in carny grease, which is problematic as the story hinges on a romance that we aren't entirely sold on. Why is the protagonist in love with the star performer, and what exactly is it that she sees in him in return? With every unearned romantic escalation I couldn't help but wish Gruen would get back to the Polish elephant and alcohol raids.

And murders, for that matter. Gruen certainly isn't afraid of cheap melodrama, which occasionally overwhelms what narrative momentum she otherwise accumulates through character development. Several major side characters meet ill ends to provide little more than gotcha moments, their existences forgotten once the string stabs fade. Her roustabouts deserve better.

And yet the books succeeds, due to Gruen's contagious affection for this tatty world and its occupying degenerates. It's the details that stick with you--the drunkard with jake foot, the lemonade-stealing elephant, the hobos tying shoes to their feet--long after the mediocre prose and surface-thin plot have faded. Additionally, it can't be stressed enough that the book is never less than compulsively readable, with easy hooks and brisk pacing that create so much momentum you'll be hard-pressed to resist topping it off with the author's interview and slight discussion guide simply because they're there.

Ultimately Gruen hits enough of the right notes to enable overlooking the few lurking just out of her range. The halls of Book Club Fiction may not be opening its doors for another inductee, but Water for Elephants is a cracking read, and sometimes that's more than enough.

1 comment:

Alison said...

The only part I'm sold on is the lemonade-stealing elephant.