February 9, 2009

The title barely relates to anything either.

So onward marches the semester, for better or worse, and so I’ve read another novel for my novel class. This one is Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Now, after how much I enjoyed Motherless Brooklyn, I was looking forward to more. I really don’t read enough, and if the class keeps feeding me stuff like that, I was going to love it.
Water for Elephants did little but disappoint.

There are books in the world that are so much worse than this book. It has a really strong sense of setting, and the writing is not altogether horrible. But being alright doesn’t really a great book make, and this book is just kind of alright.
First off, the book has a wrapper. Meaning it’s a story within a story. This can be really awesome. See something like, I dunno, Big Fish. However, there is absolutely no real meaning to having the wrapper in this book. There’s absolutely no payoff to it (and I’ll get to the ending in more detail in a minute, I have complaints about that too) and it takes up a very large portion of the book. Every time the story would get back to the old man who was remembering all this, I would sigh, and have to slog through to get back to the stuff that was more interesting.
Even the main story, though, was not perfect. Above all, the story itself seemed determined to shock. There’s nothing wrong with this either, but it honestly just felt very out of place, because when you were in a moment that was supposed to “shock” the descriptions would get all super-intense, and the language of the book would change. It felt out of place, and it just didn’t work at all.

Finally, though, the last nail in the coffin for this book was the ending. First of all, it really tried to write up, with the wrapper, that the fact that Jacob married Marlena was some kind of twist, when you knew, you knew, the moment Marlena entered the story, he was going to get the girl. But that’s just annoying. What’s wrong is that the ending is such a complete happily ever after. They miraculously go from being completely broke and jobless to having enough money to support themselves and an elephant and a chimp and a whole bunch of horses. Hell, even the old Jacob gets to improbably relive his glory days recklessly. This just does not jive with the grittiness, the dirtiness, the reality the rest of the book is trying to sell you. The book attempts to make the ending seem less perfect than it is by killing off several characters you might like right at the end, and it might work… if the fact that those characters were around wouldn’t have made trouble for the couple. If they would have still been alive, then Jacob and Marlena would have to figure out how to help them, and they couldn’t ride away on the Rainbow Happy Ending Express unhindered. It just doesn’t work.

So yeah, I was very disappointed with Water for Elephants. It was not anything that I would call a great book. It might have come off a little better if it hadn’t been in such close proximity to Motherless Brooklyn, which was just… awesom. But only a little better. Only a little.

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