The misconceptions of Elephants.

This may have been the main sticky wicket that kept me from blogging these past few weeks (heaven knows the 50th birthday in the family and the new boy didn’t help).  I hate admitting that I don’t like a book that much.

I love elephants.  I always have.  That being said, I still doubt I would have picked up Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen on my own.  I’m grateful that it was given to me (which is a sure-fire way to get me to read something).  Though I feel like the functional writing is good, I don’t like the content very much.  I enjoyed the book on a very basic level, but was unsatisfied at the end of it.

Remember when, a few weeks ago, I talked about how I don’t like sex scenes in general and was very angry when an author used that device for the entirely inappropriate character?  Something similar happened in this book.  I never got quite so furious as I did with What Alice Knew because at least the sexuality was what I felt to be in character.  However, that being said, I think the flaw lay in the character.

I am no fan of strict gender roles.  That being said, it is my firm belief that men should not write women main characters and women should not write male main characters.  Men who write female leads tend to write frivolous or unimaginative girls who can only concentrate on sunshine, daisies, and cute boys.  Women who write male leads tend to write sex-centric or angry minds with little else left to them.  I can personally attest to the fact that women are not all like that.  I can also attest that the men I know aren’t all full of anger or sexual urges to the exclusion of all else.  I may be lucky in my associations, but I know enough good men that I have a hard time believing a character who spends so much time on and surrounded by sex.

The main character spends time as a ninety-three year old (or is it ninety . . . he’s never quite sure) and remembering being a twenty-three year old.  Seeing as I’m also twenty-three and in a similar place as the character, I found quite a bit of that time hard to believe.  His nonagenarian scenes, on the other hand, were wonderful.  But, much of the emotions and reactions of the young man he once was felt too old or too young for me.  And, of course, there’s the fact that his main motivation for, well, nearly everything, seemed to be sex or lack thereof.   Goody.

But, now that we’ve established I’m either a prude or sensitive, lucky in my associations or horribly naive (depending on how nice to me you feel like being), I want to talk about the other parts that disappointed.  Then I’ll get to what I liked.  Promise.

As I said above, my biggest issue with the main character, Jacob, was that his reactions seemed either too young or too old.  Granted, the book began with the death of his parents, but the too young moments didn’t feel like him crying out for parents, neither did his too old moments feel like the maturity that came with grief.  In fact, I didn’t see grief at all!  Not numb grief, not suppressed grief (which is still apparent), not angry grief, not any sort of grief.  The death of his parents seemed like a device to get Jacob to run off and join the circus.  I feel bad for these characters, to be cast aside when they could’ve fulfilled the same role in a far less drastic manner.  This reaction felt too young for a twenty-three year old who had spent the last 4-6 years (I assume the specialized program took extra time, but I could be wrong) exerting the discipline it takes to graduate from a top school in a medical field.  Perhaps this was the grief I was looking for, but it didn’t feel like it.  It just felt petulant and self-pitying.

Then there was the constant inability to interact with women, and not just on a sexual level.  He was certainly young on that level, which is understandable for a twenty-three year old virgin, but also on a social level.  It is my gut instinct that someone who had had a steady girlfriend in college would at least be adept enough to say a decent hello, but I could be wrong.

Where his reactions were too old, I felt, was his rage at the world and his fellow companions.  In the new and unsure situation (especially having failed, at the last moment, to get his degree), I would expect him to feel young.  Instead, he takes to his position as the veterinarian of the menagerie with a command I wouldn’t have thought possible from this boy, a command that I can see is in full force as a ninety-three year old man.  But it seems obvious, at first, that it took a goodly part of those seventy years for that sense of self to develop.  Apparently not.

Other things not well done: the use of the term “paranoid schizophrenia.”  AUGH!!!  LAZY EDITING ALERT!!!  Yes, the author holds some blame, but this is the exact sort of tiny detail situation that an editor is for.  Having been a veteran of the mental health system for several years now, I was shocked when I saw the words “paranoid schizophrenia” used in a 1930s conversation.  However, I’m often shocked at the advances of medicine (I was shocked when I learned how old the concept of surgery was), so I looked up when the term began to be used.  Oops, Gruen & Co.  The modern-day classifications of schizophrenia (of which paranoid is one) didn’t come into use until the 1970s (there were some controversial studies about standardising classification of the disease), so far as I could find.  Schizophrenia, while recognized as a disease in the 19th century, wasn’t even called that until just before 1910.  Schizophrenia would be appropriate, add the paranoid and you’re officially anachronistic.  (I do post this admitting that I was unable to check the OED to confirm this, which is pretty much the best source for the first time phrases like this are used.  But every website I found on the history of schizophrenia, from Wikipedia to private to medical, mention this 1970s study as the beginning of these classifications.  I’m pretty confident this is a mistake.)

As I said, the ninety-three year old Jacob scenes are very well done.  I feel like the too old, too young Jacob the reader knows could easily become this old man.  However, I also feel that had Jacob been written better, he still could have become this old man.  I think ninety year old Jacob is fully realized Jacob and twenty-three year old Jacob is the character that the author is unsure of.  It is unfortunate that most of the book is spent with the unsure version of Jacob.

Other things well done: The aspects of the circus.  It feels like a running show, and I love that.  I love the characters who move in and out of the woodwork.  Jacob’s clown roommate Kinko (Walter), who is simultaneously misanthropic and the best people-reader in the book (perhaps the reason he is so misanthropic), is vengeful, Puckish, bitter, learned, lonely, loving, and just about every conflicting personality trait you can come up with.  He’s also there when he needs to be.  He’s a gem.  Also well done is the relationship between the paranoid schizophrenic (for that is what he is no matter how anachronistic the label, grrrr) and his wife.  It is volatile enough to be dangerous and the reader to be rooting for Marlena to leave, and yet loving enough to understand why she stays.

Like I said, I enjoyed the book on a basic level.  There were enough good parts to keep me reading through the parts that tried my patience.  Also, this book began as a NaNoWriMo piece, which helped me finish it.  I’m grateful I read the book.  Gruen obviously spent a goodly amount of time researching so she could pull off a world not her own.  I appreciate that very much.  I just wish she had spent a little more time with her main character and few more of the details.  As the title indicates, I think this book has a few misconceptions, some about the world in general, some about itself.

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