I have a confession to make. I committed the cardinal sin of any bibliophile and I'm ashamed. Of course, I will perform my penance as necessary (recite 5 Shakespearean sonnets from memory? Stay out of bookstores for a month?) but the first step is admitting what I've done, right? So here it is...I watched the movie Water for Elephants before I read the book. Phew...I feel better already just owning up to it. Of course I regretted it the minute the credits rolled, but you know how it goes. It's the holidays, someone brings a movie over to watch and it seems innocent enough. Then there's the peer pressure, because everyone is watching it. A stronger woman would have resisted, but I caved!
After watching the movie with us, my friend Brittany handed me her copy of the book and sent me on my way to enjoy it. And I did enjoy it. However, I would have been much more invested in the plot and the novel would have held more suspense had I avoided the movie. The prologue of the novel details a murder committed at the circus but leads you in the vague assumption of which character committed the murder. As the plot progresses the details of the circus, the characters, and a possible motive for murder are filled in until the reader is positive who killed whom. That's one of the great draws of the novel: the reader is propelled forward by a desire to solve the mystery. Of course, I already knew the answers and I feel as though I missed out on the fervent page turning and the joy inherent in discovering plot twists.
With that said, reading the book was still very much enjoyable. The movie provides the bare bones of the plot and some shallow character development but nothing beats a novel in providing the entire picture. I enjoyed learning the motivations of certain characters and how their relationships fit together. The information I gained about a traveling circus in the early 20th century was fascinating and at times devastating (in regards to animal treatment). I can easily see why this book was a New York Times Bestseller and I will have no problem recommending it to friends and fellow book lovers. It was a lovely distraction for a few days and an enjoyable read.
My only point of contention regards the chapters that explored Jacob's current life in the nursing home. The novel is told from the point of view of the main character Jacob Jankowski who is reflecting back on his early circus experiences as an old man. Every time a new chapter abandoned the flashback and settled on "current time" I groaned a little. I was honestly a little bored by the retirement home scenes. I'm not sure if that was a by-product of having seen the movie already, but I found myself speed reading those few chapters in an effort to get back to the main plot. The view point of an older Jacob added layers to character and to the story, but it slowed the pace considerably for me. Perhaps the book would be severely lacking without that flashback/flash-forward structure...but we'll never know. The good news is that it didn't at all ruin the book for me.
"Why the hell shouldn't I run away with the circus?"
~Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants