Monday, July 05, 2010

A Book I didn't expect to like: Water for Elephants

On January 6, I announced that my New Year's resolution was to read some books I didn't think I would like and write about my reaction to them. I was trying for one a month and I've pretty much stuck to that as far as reading goes, I just haven't been writing about them. I gave a large list of categories of books I wouldn't normally read and asked for suggestions, though more are always welcome.

For those keeping track, Water for Elephants is a historical novel that fails the Bechdel test.

I have what I think are good reasons for not liking what I don't like. I don't expect every book to grant me an epiphany about how wrong I was to dislike its genre, though I won't be surprised if that happens once or twice. Mostly, I'm going to read with an open mind and see what I discover.


I don't know why I have a thing against historical novels written by a modern author, I just kinda do. At least partially, the issue is that I often have trouble identifying with the characters and find that historical novels spend way too much time describing the setting. I don't so much read to explore new worlds as to explore new people, so I tend to find books that spend a lot of time on the setting tiresome.

Water for Elephants really doesn't have that problem. The author does a wonderful job of surrounding you with a depression-ever circus without ever being too lavish in the details. You fill in the battered sequins and smell of horses yourself. The frame story is set in the present day. If anything more detail is used describing the main character's nursing home, but even that never seems excessive. Essentially, Water for Elephants is the story of a large animal vet who is now very old and in a nursing home, but had spent his youth traveling around with a circus during the great depression. The narrative shifts back and forth between the present day in the nursing home and the main character's time working on the circus.

This is a really well-written book. I liked it very much and have told lots of my friends about it. In doing so, I've discovered that it was a fashionable book club book from a few years ago and many people had already read it. I've never been a book club kinda girl and the "Angela's Ashes" sorts of things I perceive they read don't appeal to me. So in a sense, I've found one more reason I wouldn't expect to like Water for Elephants. I did, though.

I know someone who is on the Board of Directors of a local nursing home. This gentleman told me that the Chair of the Board of Directors found the nursing home sequences so powerful that he bought copies for the entire board and the senior management of the nursing home. IMHO, this is a great idea. In both stories, the main character is fighting to keep his dignity in a weird and hostile environment.

The plot is, at times, melodramatic, but I found that the setting and the general mood it evoked made it work. The circus and its employees tend to have a very "us against the world" sort of attitude and people who think that way tend to end up in melodramatic situations, IMHO. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in the sheer pleasure of the well-drawn characters.

The Elephant was a wonderful character.* Though the main character does find love, the relationship between Vet and Elephant feels far more central to the book and far more vital.

who really did read that in February/March

*Animal lovers take note: This is, again, set in a circus during the great Depression. Some scenes are going to be squicky.


LinguistFriend said...

I have a mildly technical question: what is the ratio of the proportion of books you like in fact for the group (A) that you expect to like, to the proportion that you like in fact for the group (B) that you don't expect to like? So, which group is the better one to invest time in? I haven't checked how large the samples need to be.

Anonymous said...

Random comment - Water for Elephants started off as her attempt at NaNoWriMo - national novel writing month :D

Chalicechick said...

LF: So far, I've liked most of the books I've read for this project just fine, though Water for Elephants was one of the more enjoyable.

If I buy a book expecting to like it, I almost always do. But if I buy only books I expect to like, I read a lot of detective novels and few other authors. I want to expand my horizons. So far it has been a good experience.


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