Water for Elephants is the kind of story that sticks with you.
I finished listening to the audiobook through the OverDrive Media Console app several days ago, and I’ve been thinking about it constantly – trying desperately to decide what to say that would accurately portray my feelings about it.
First, the book has flawless characterization. The writing stays true to the world and the characters inside it; everything everyone does down to the last detail feels incredibly real and human.
This concept is driven even deeper home with the excellent voice actors used to narrate the story. It was almost the equivalent of watching their lives through an open window – I could see and hear everything, though I was only an active observer rather than a participant.
It’s All About the People
However, just because something is human doesn’t mean it’ll be pretty – wrapped up in a neat bow with all the dust swept under the rug, so to speak. In fact, this was probably the most violent, most sexual, most gritty book I’ve ever read. It is no walk in the park, and at several times, I was tempted to give up on it simply because I doubted whether I could stomach it all.
Yet the voices captured my attention, and the characters with their unfortunate yet fascinating lives kept me listening even when their lifestyles were in conflict with my own personal beliefs. While I disagreed with the choices they made, I felt any other action they took would have been outside their character and would have cheapened the story.
The characters drove the plot forward, bringing it to a gruesome and tense yet exciting climax, and then bringing it back down to a satisfying finish. It was the characters, rather than the plot itself, that kept me reading – I had to know what they were going to do next, not because they were unpredictable, but simply because they embodied human nature.
Be Careful . . .It’s Not an Easy Read
It’s a unique setting, too: a vet during the prohibition and depression finds himself in the middle of a circus menagerie. The time period was fascinating, and I had to brush up on my history to make sense of some parts. Sara Gruen clearly researched the time period and the uncensored lives of those who lived in the circus.
However, don’t let this high praise convince you to pick up the book just for the fun of it. It is not something to take lightly, especially if you are a younger reader or uncomfortable with sex, foul language, or violence. These concepts are not portrayed as glamorous, but they are described in a great amount of detail to feel real. While the story has a happy ending, you will feel like you got dragged through the mud and trampled by the elephant in order to get to that point.
While I feel like Water for Elephants has something unique to offer, I also feel the good is counterbalanced with the not-so-good. This leaves my book scale sitting in the middle. I didn’t hate it enough to give it a full on “banana book” tag, I don’t love it enough to give it a full on recommendation.
I give this one a “maybe” and “with caution.”
In Comparison to the Movie
The book gave me such conflicting feelings that I thought it might be a good idea to watch film adaptation to give it a second round.
The movie followed the generic events of the book without too much altering (with the exception of the ending, which moved things around and cut things short by quite a bit). As with any movie based on the book, it didn’t have the time to cover all the details or go into every character with as much depth as the book did. Some characters were combined into one person, which kept the film compact but also simplified events that were meant to be emotionally complex.
Consequently, I think the movie wouldn’t have made as much sense if I hadn’t read the book – the characters didn’t have as much opportunity to grow and develop, so the finale wasn’t nearly as emotionally satisfying.
I love Reese Witherspoon as an actress, but I do have negative associations with Robert Pattinson as an actor because all I see is his lack-of-emotions vampire performance from Twilight. Of course, it’s not his fault he is forever portrayed as a vampire in my head, but both Twilight and Water for Elephants didn’t give him a chance to act enough to redeem himself. While the character in the book feels alive and vibrant, his character in the movie is flat and inexpressive.
On the flip side, this lack of detail also left the movie a lot cleaner than the book. The language was cut back to a few mild cuss words. The sex was shot in such a way that it implied the event without showing anything. The violence was enough to get the point across but nothing unsuitable for a pg-13 movie.
If you want to get the general idea of the book, then the movie is a decent option,
but not all that impressive.
If you want to get all the gritty details, then the book might be for you, but it’s not something I feel comfortable recommending to anyone right off the bat, especially if they share my moral standards.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole experience, so I’m open to your insight. If you have any thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.
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