by Sara Gruen
May 2006, Algonquin Books
Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants is a book after my own heart. It takes place in a travelling circus in the 1930s--what could be better than that? Told through the recollections of an elderly (either 90 or 93, he claims) man who is unwillingly cooped up in a nursing home, this tale of animals, intrigue, and true love on the circus circuit in the early 1930s kept me rapt for the entire 300+ pages, and wishing there were more when it ended.
Gruen's narrative is very colorful, with both the spectacle of the show itself and its cast of characters described so I could clearly see them in my head. This is unusual for me, as someone who usually sees nothing more than words when she reads, and it was very nice. It also really made me hope that somebody in Hollywood reads this novel, because it would make a great movie.
Which isn't to say that the whole book is cheerful, because it's most certainly not. This circus is more dark than bright, with every scene covered in Depression-era grime and dust, and the people who populate the book are mostly hard luck stories and villians. Much of the story is very sad, and the abuse of people an animals it portrays will make you sick. However, the story is ultimately redemptive, though in a brutal way.
Though there are obvious parallels between Water for Elephants and Katherine Dunn's brilliant Geek Love, Gruen's book isn't as grisly, nor is it as people-centered, as Dunn's. Gruen's sympathy clearly lies with the animals in her story, which gives the circus a completely different feel. There is also an undercurrent of hope in Water for Elephants that doesn't run through Geek Love, making it a bit easier to stomach the rough parts.
All in all, I'd highly recommend this book. It's some of the best fiction I've read in quite some time.