It's the third Monday of the month and that means it is book discussion day at the Berwyn Public Library. Today we discussed Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob Jankowski, a ninety-something year old nursing home patient. The novel is his reminiscence of his life in a depression era circus, specifically his coming-of-age as a man and as a veterinarian. The story follows Jacob as he learns of the indignities of circus life and the intense desperation of the Great Depression. We follow Jacob as he falls in love with a performer, tries to save her from an abusive husband, and fights for the rights of the circus workers and animals. But it is with the introduction of Rosie, an elephant, that the story blossoms into something special.
There are many layers to Water for Elephants and my group had no problem filling the 90 minutes discussing the different issues. As the group is made up of mainly senior women, the issues of aging, the state of nursing homes, and the importance of passing on your family's stories was discussed at length. The Great Depression as a time period and subject is something that also caught the attention of my group.
But obviously we spent most of our time discussing Rosie the elephant, Marlena, August, and Jacob. I do not want to give the plot away to those of you who have not read this book, but I can safely say that in the book's prologue you know that the climax of the book will be August's murder. However who August is, who kills him, and why is what the entire book details, and is what continues to haunt the 90 year old Jacob-- our narrator.
Originally, I was nervous that this book would not have enough for us to discuss, but soon after beginning to compile discussion questions and research in preparation for today, I found I was quite mistaken. This seemingly simple historical novel about depression era circus held many complex messages about life, relationships, and loyalty-- both then and now.
There are many appeal factors to work from when locating readalikes for Water for Elephants. As I told my group, there is a reason this book is a runaway best seller. With its depression era setting, male narrator, compelling female characters, young and old protagonist, and wish fulfillment yet open to the imagination ending, there is something for just about everyone. For those readers who are drawn to the circus setting and details there are many choices. The Blue Moon Circus by Michael Raleigh takes place a few years prior to the action in Gruen's novel and follows the owner of a circus as he travels the Western US. In The Aerialist by Richard Schmitt Gary goes off the get help after a car accident, but instead joins the circus where he eventually works his way up to a wire walker. This novel includes the perspectives of various members of the circus. Don't forget the numerous nonfiction titles about circuses and circus life including (but not limited to) The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top by Janet M. Davis and Stewart O'Nan's The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy.
For those who enjoyed the way Gruen tells her story as the reminiscence of a an elderly man looking back on his life in show business, a great choice would be Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken. Here, the novel is told by a Vaudevillian actor in his old age. He looks back on his life and on the entertainment industry over much of the 20th century.
Finally, one of my patrons mentioned during the course of our discussion that Water for Elephants reminded her of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. She said the similarities went beyond the interaction between the younger woman and the nursing home patient telling her life story. She brought up the similar use of dark humor, intense personal relationships, and the ultimate triumphs of the main characters. I must say, she has a great point.
My group also requested that I compile a list of the books we have discussed over the now almost 7 years during which we have been meeting. I will attempt to do this and can post a link to the word document for those of you who are interested in what we have been discussing. In the meantime, next month is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
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