Water for Elephants is a bestselling, popular title, so I’d heard a lot about it based on reviews and word-of-mouth. I knew the basic plot summary: Old man reflects back on his work with a traveling circus during the Depression.
“Blech,” I thought. “I do not want to read that. I will never read that. No one can make me read that book, ever. So there.”
Something about it just didn’t appeal. An old man reminiscing? Ick. Exactly what I don’t want to read. Nothing against old people, but it would be sappy and nostalgic and saccharine, I just knew it. And a Depression-era book? Set in the circus? Ugh—that’s the perfect recipe for Wholesome and Educational.
Then my book group selected Water for Elephants, despite my flurry of protests. With great reluctance, I cracked open the book… and was hooked with a few pages.
I had been wrong. Sigh.
Contrary to my preconceived notions, there’s nothing Norman Rockwell-y about the book, at all. Here’s what they never tell you in the reviews, and which I am about to impart, so that you can make your own informed decision:
There is a scene with a masturbating dwarf.
If that disturbs you (or if the thought of a burlesque scene upsets you, or if you don’t want to read about a drunken night of sexual debauchery), then for heaven’s sake don’t read this book. Otherwise, you might be in for a treat. Jacob the nonagenarian does reflect on his younger years, but there is nothing sugary or romantic about it. Instead we get to see the seamy underside of the circus, including its cast of bawdy performers and surly stagehands. Moving along at a good clip and driven by a mounting sense of tension, the book takes us through the highs and lows of life on a traveling circus, with a healthy dose of intrigue and scandal thrown in.
This is a fun story with a lot of gritty detail, a carefully researched historical setting, a murder, and a final plot twist that will take you by complete surprise.