Friday, April 15, 2011

Would "Sara Groan" be too mean?

now finished: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I'm in between presidential biographies - after a very satisfying Millard Fillmore experience, awaiting a two-volume stint with Franklin Pierce - and the time came to read some contemporary novels that have been percolating on the to-read list in my head for a while. I plunged right into Water for Elephants, what with the movie coming out soon and all. And....sigh.

It's never a good sign when the only thing you find yourself telling other people about a book is that you'll read it really fast. (Are you listening, Twihards?) Wanting to know what happens does not mean it is a great book. Does wanting to see a photo of a car accident mean it is necessarily great art? No. Two totally different things going on there.

I don't want to chalk Water for Elephants up to being just another nothing-attracts-a-crowd-like-a-crowd bestseller, but it really isn't the Great American Novel. It has some good ideas, some fun scenes, some good writing, some totally out of place dialogue (more like out of time - sounding decidedly un-1930s), some characters that are flat as a pancake and, bringing it all together, an author who I daresay is getting just a bit too much credit for being an animal rights enthusiast when she apparently has no problem with animals being forced to live in cruel captivity and perform in the circus.

Part of me thinks I shouldn't judge Water for Elephants based on the Sara Gruen interviews I've read, in which she says that extreme animal rights activists are as bad as those abusing animals. The rest of me is puzzled that this woman who is so enamored of the circus and zoos is getting credit for writing an animal rights-themed book.

The main problem with the book has nothing to do with any of this. The main problem is that the two main characters, Jacob and Marlena, who fall in love, are flat flat flat flat flat. In the midst of a circus - a CIRCUS! - a place with the most interesting, crazy, robust, raunchy, drifter, mean, talented, bizarre, drunk, quirky group of characters you've ever seen, this author manages to make the object of our hero's affection have absolutely nothing interesting whatsoever about her. Quite a feat, that. There's also the slight problem that most of these interesting kooky circus freaks and whatnot are men, while the three women characters are the beautiful love interest, the nurse, and the sex worker. Wow, Sara Gruen. Just wow.

I ended up gladly giving it away at our inaugural Andong English teachers book swap and am just a little sad that I spent the money to buy it (and gave Ms Gruen another number to pad her bestseller statistics), and yet I'm not really sorry I read it. This is what makes me miss having ready access to an English library.

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