Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I’ve recently re-discovered my love for historical fiction.

Part of this has to do with my internship. The biggest perk of working at a publishing house is the free books. Sometimes I get galley copies, sometimes I get actual, real, published books. A week ago, I read Savage Lands by Clare Clark, which I will post about soon.

However, today I want to write about Water for Elephants. I had only heard good things about this book, but until I saw it in a friend’s bookshelf, I never really bothered to look at it. I think I was put off by some remnants of lit major snobbery–you know, it’s not a good book unless the author has been dead for 50 years, or it’s about suffering, or it’s written by an old white dude.

Yes, yes. I realize how wrong this all is. But I occasionally still feel pangs of guilt that come with pleasure reading (college may have messed me up). And Water for Elephants really is pleasurable reading. It’s fun and fast and exotic and sensual and fun.

It’s also well-written.

Anyway, here is the basic premise: A 93-year-old man stews quietly in a nursing home. His mind is slowly slipping away, until the arrival of a circus awakens something long dormant. Switching back and forth between the 1930s and present day, we learn how Jacob ran away from Cornell veterinary school to join the circus after being orphaned only to meet a cruel, hateful equestrian trainer and his glittering, glamorous wife. There is love, death, violence, sex, and more than enough squalor.

I don’t know if this really counts as historical fiction, but I fell in love with Gruen’s depiction of 1930s America. I also happen to be fascinated with freak shows and the cult of the supernatural that arose during that era, so Water for Elephants sated all sorts of cravings I didn’t know I had. Plus, it helped start up a conversation on the train–another 20-something girl had just started reading it when she noticed me mid-way through–which is always a pleasant surprise.


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