Water for Elephants is Sarah Gruen’s New York Times bestseller about a Cornell-educated veterinarian joining a circus during the depression. It is also the worst book I have ever finished.
The book strays in many ways, but Gruen’s number one mistake is not being true to the characters or situation. The narrative is continuously, actively, dishonest, hiding details from you in a blatant effort to surprise you later. An example: the book opens with a chapter that seems to suggest the protagonist’s love interest kills her husband, but it’s later revealed (in a modified version of the same chapter) that the actual killer was an elephant. Oh, and that the dead husband (surprise!) was a paranoid schizophrenic who sometimes hit her. So it’s okay, everyone.
The entire book rests on the laurels of lazy gimmick: “Jacob Jankowski”, our Polish protagonist, joins the circus completely by accident. Once his parents have died in a freak car crash, his inheritance is seized by a bank, and he fails his final exams, he wanders away from town and finds himself in the middle of nowhere, walking along a set of train tracks. When the next train comes, he decides to hop it. “Decides” suggests too much in this context: the train comes, and implicitly Jacob knows that he has to jump it. Why? Because it’s a circus train, and this story is about a circus! I’m not trying to be “punchy” or “cute”; that is the literal motivation presented.
Logic is consistently strained well beyond breaking point. Motives are almost completely ignored. The story propels itself forward on a mish-mash of cliché and incoherence. It’s clear Gruen only barely understands her characters. Jacob Jankowski is our virginal, chaste, “hero”, who, bafflingly, spends the first chapter worrying about losing his virginity (inappropriate at best given the circumstances, his later character) then feels supremely guilty when he actually loses it, or when he kisses (only kisses!) the battered wife of another (insane) man.
It feels almost like Gruen is writing biographical fiction, but has no idea what the motivations or thought processes of any of her characters are– she just rushes from plot point to plot point, without any thought at all put into how her characters get there. “The chimp needed a cuddle”, one of the worst lines I have ever read, is a supreme example of this: Gruen wants to make it known that Jacob is loved by the circus animals he treats, but doesn’t want to spend any time actually establishing it, so when he walks into the animal tent she describes a loving, affectionate, relationship with a chimp we have met only once (under the care of someone else) with a jarring sentimentality that makes the passage unintentionally hilarious.
A similar effect is achieved any time Gruen “emotes” the other animals, most notably the titular elephant. I still have no idea what an elephant “smile” is, or how it can be utilised so frequently and intuitively by that animal, but I’ve been subjected to it enough times for the phrase to carve out some kind of Frankensteinian meaning (an unfortunate tactic, if that is what Gruen was really aiming for). Animals are constantly personified: every expression, better explained by noting a minute or natural change in the animal, gains the sort of emotional, adverbial “human” tag that is hard to relate in any case, least of all on a face alien to human expressions. It’s almost as if Gruen’s experience with the animal kingdom is so limited that she imagines every creature is as effusive as Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse. Or, perhaps she knows something I don’t.
Somehow she manages a similar effect with her human characters. Though the plot is meant to be “sweeping”, encompassing the passage of a significant amount of time (the book is narrated by Jacob on the circus and Jacob later at the age of ninety), the stage it is set on seems infinitesimal. The players are lead-footed and suspended in the air by minute, clumsily driven, pieces of string.