Review: Water for Elephants

43641Title: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Genre: Contemporary, historical fiction

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:Orphaned, penniless, Jacob Jankowski jumps a freight train in the dark, and in that instant, transforms his future.
By morning, he's landed a job with the Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. By nightfall, he's in love.
In an America made colourless by prohibition and the Depression, the circus is a refuge of sequins and sensuality. But behind the glamour lies a darker world, where both animals and men are dispensable. Where falling in love is the most dangerous act of all... 

I don't often read contemporary fiction, because I usually find it dull compared to my usual sci-fi and fantasy. I had heard a lot of good things about this book, though, so I decided to give it a shot. I read it on audiobook, and I thought the narrator for younger Jacob was great. Older Jacob's voice definitely sounded like a 90-something year old, wheezing old man, which was realistic but also very hard to understand. I still thought they both did a good job of bringing both versions of Jacob to life.

I was not expecting to get as emotionally invested in this story as I did. It's actually pretty dark, since a lot of it focuses on an abusive marriage and a ruthless circus manager. Jacob stumbles into life at the circus after a tragic accident, not knowing what to expect. He soon discovers that life at a circus is hard and filled with prejudice and social hierarchies. He also discovers the love of his life, and unfortunately she's married to a man with schizophrenia who is very abusive on his bad days.

I liked that Jacob's story wasn't simply a love story, because I get bored with novels that are mainly about romance. It's also about his relationship with an elephant, Rosie, and how Rosie comes to symbolize hope for him and many others at the circus. There are also some unexpected yet endearing friendships in this book. I also liked how unflinching this book was when it came to portraying prejudice and cruelty during desperate times.

I wish the book had been more subtle or compassionate in its portrayal of a character with mental illness, because although it did acknowledge that August was charismatic and warm on his good days, it didn't do as good a job of showing how August wasn't defined by his mental illness. In fact, it did just the opposite, with most characters coming to see him as nothing but a cruel, sadistic, and insane man. Obviously I am not condoning any of August's behavior, but since we live in a world with so much stigma against people with mental illnesses, I think this book could have done a better job of making that distinction.

I enjoyed this book far more than I expected, and I will definitely be reading more by Sara Gruen.

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