Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a very popular novel about circus life in the Great Depression. Jacob, 93 years old, retells his adventures one life-changing summer when he happens upon a job as a veterinarian for a traveling circus. The story bounces between Jacob’s frustrations with life in an assisted living facility, and his circus memories of meeting his future wife and the animals he learned to love. A depression-era traveling circus is an intriguing and colorful setting for a book, and one that held a lot of promise. But on several levels I found this book unsatisfactory.
First of all, an integral part of the plot is Jacob falling in love with his future wife, Marlena, who just happens to be married. At first, Jacob expresses guilt over his feelings for a married woman. But once it emerges her husband is abusive and schizophrenic, the implication is he is free to succumb to his feelings for her. Which he rapidly does.
Enter problem two with this book: a truly ridiculous amount of sexual content. Jacob spends way too much time talking about his desire to be rid of “the burden” of his virginity. I would even describe it as a minor conflict point: when and to whom will Jacob lose his virginity? There are also descriptions of masturbation, fornication, adultery, strippers, pornography, and more. It’s bad on a moral level, and also unnecessary on a storytelling level. Honestly, even if I hadn’t been repulsed by the blatant sexual content, the amount it interrupted the flow of the plot ruined the book.
A relatively minor quibble is I found what I call the “unforgiving, judgmental Catholic parent” theme, which I see often in popular modern books. A Catholic character (in this case Marlena) makes a blunder by the so-called Catholic standards of her parents. These supposedly Catholic standards are often not even in line with Catholic teaching; in this case Marlena is disowned for marrying a Jew. The parents then utterly disown and refuse to help the character ever again period. This drives the character out of the Catholic Church and also justifies all his or her future morally questionable actions. I really dislike this portrayal of Catholics as irrational, unforgiving people.
I was so disappointed with this book overall. The focus on the sexual content resulted in the circus itself really got short-changed. The enjoyable parts of the book were about the animal performers and the friendships Jacob forms with the other crew members. I wanted to read more about the elephant, Rosie. And the liberty horses act. And the other performers and crew members. If this book had focused more on the circus and less on an adulterous relationship, it might have been worth reading. But it didn’t. So my advice is don’t bother reading it, and given the graphic sexual content definitely do not allow your children to read it.