...why I hated Water for Elephants. As I mentioned previously, when I read the book a few years back, I didn't like it. It's not that I'm some elitist who enjoys disliking a book so loved by readers. I mean, c'mon, I'm a card-carrying Twi-hard and a Harry Potter fanatic. I have no problem loving books that millions of others do too. However, this book was primarily set in the 1930s, a time period that I am fairly well versed in, and it irritated me for some reason. I had thought it was because Sara Gruen "hit you over the head" with the 1930s, the Great Depression, and Prohibition. And she did. But also, now that I've re-read the first four chapters (I couldn't read any more—it's going straight to the Goodwill), I realized that the most annoying thing about this book is that it seems like the author just inserted a lot of little tidbits of information she learned while researching the 30s and circuses for no real reason whatsoever. For example*:
- "Then he drives me to the hospital in his own car, a two-year-old Phaeton that must have cost the earth. So many things people would have done differently had they known what would happen that fateful October." (p. 22)—to me, this is just a gratuitous stock market crash of 1929 reference and also a chance for the author to drop in the name of a 1920s car she learned about in her research. Neither add to the story one bit.
- "Hell, I even remember the ones who had to drop out after the Crash: Henry Winchester, whose father stepped off the ledge of the Board of Trade Building in Chicago. Alistair Barnes, whose father shot himself in the head. Reginald Monty, who tried unsuccessfully to live in a car when his family could no longer pay for his room and board. Bucky Hayes, whose unemployed father simply wandered off." (p. 29) —this excerpt is from a paragraph where the narrator, Jacob, is talking about how he should recognize his fellow students during his final exam, but he's too shaken up by his parents' deaths to do so. However, it looks like the author read a Wikipedia entry on the behavior of people after the stock market crash and decided to use some of it in a totally unrelated part of the story. It's totally unnecessary and distracted me from how Jacob was feeling at the moment—she should have just concentrated on getting across the point that he was disoriented to the point of not being able to take his exam.
- After Camel asks a fellow circus laborer, Will, for a cigarette: "The man straightens up and pats his shirt pockets. He digs into one and retrieves a bent cigarette. 'It's Bull Durham,' he says, leaning forward and holding it out. 'Sorry.' 'Roll-your-own suits me fine,' says Camel." (p. 41)—I feel like this part would have been better served if she had just had Camel bum a cigarette from Will without all the useless name dropping of Bull Durham and the explanation that it was tobacco that needed to be rolled in paper. I wonder if the author Googled "1930s cigarettes" and found Bull Durham tobacco and decided to just needlessly insert that information somewhere. Again, it adds nothing to the story other than awkward dialogue that made me cringe.
- "'Damn Prohibition,' Camel finally says. 'This stuff used to taste just fine till the government decided it shouldn't. Still gets the job done, but tastes like hell.'" (p. 63-64)—Seriously? Is there anyone who doesn't know what Prohibition is? We all learned about it in US History, we don't need another history lesson on it. And, in 1931, when this book is set, Prohibition had been going on for 11 years. I doubt anyone would say anything remotely like this in 1931. Maybe complaining about the flavor of illegal alcohol or wishing Prohibition was over, but geez, this is like a really short explanation of Prohibition as if the people reading this book needed one.
- "'Not now, boy. Not now,' booms Al, goose-stepping past like the Brownshirts you see in the grainy news trailers at the movies." (p. 67)—I really think that this sentence could have been served better without the reference to Nazi Sturmabteilung. I mean, do you really think Al was literally goose stepping? Why would he do that? I can picture Al striding purposefully or even marching past Camel and Jacob, without paying attention to them, but not goose stepping. And also, the graininess of news footage in the 30s was the norm and I don't think it was something people in the 30s would really comment on. It is, of course, very grainy to us with our HD movies, but I don't think a person in the 30s would have taken note of it. Of course, we could assume that this is old Jacob talking and he's so used to crystal clear TV and movies, that the graininess of old news footage stands out to him. But still, I think this is a useless reference and one the author only threw in to show off.
- "'Marlena said Silver Star was off,' says August. 'Wanted me to get the advance man to arrange for a vet. Didn't seem to understand that the advance man was gone out in advance, hence the name.'" (p. 75)—now here is an example of the author throwing in random circus information for no reason. I feel like she found out what an advance man was and decided to insert that information into the story, but didn't know where, so she stuck it here. But don't you think that Marlena, who has been on the circus for however long at this point, would know exactly what an advance man is? Why would she ask August to get the advance man to get a vet for Silver Star when she knew perfectly well he was not there? It just seems fishy to me. The point of this whole statement is that one of the horses is not well and they could use Jacob's veternarian expertise. There is absolutely no need for the definition of advance man.
And that's where I stopped. I couldn't read any more. Sara Gruen's annoying habit of just dropping information into the story where it isn't needed really bothered me and I didn't want to subject myself to it (again). However, as I've said before, the actual story is a good one—one that made an enjoyable movie. I just think that my 1930s knowledge combined with my natural-born-editor's eyes caught all of these annoying information drops more readily than your average reader. Which is why so many people love the book and why I hated it.
All that said, I do feel bad totally ragging on an author's hard work. She actually put effort into researching this time period and circuses instead of just making shit up. However, I think she should have put more effort into making the story flow seamlessly instead of sticking in random bits of trivia here and there. I picture her with little 3x5 notecards with different facts and terms from the 1930s and circuses and just deciding randomly to put one here, another one there, one more over there, etc., into the main story she had created. Whatever her real process for writing it, it just wasn't for me. I usually enjoy the books I read a LOT more than I enjoyed this one (see my Shelfari, linked to on the right) and I usually give them good reviews (mostly 4-5 stars). So I think I'm entitled to intensely dislike a few!
*page numbers are from the movie tie-in paperback edition