Detours: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I took a detour with Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I had initially planned to read Paradise by Toni Morrison, an author I’ve been fascinated with since grade school for reasons I cannot remember.

I was at Aliya’s Bookshop a while back when I saw a used copy of Water for Elephants and without hesitation I grabbed it. I don’t even remember how I first heard about it but I think it was after I saw the movie trailer. Decided to read the book first. You can guess that I haven’t watched the movie yet.

Jacob Jankowski takes a detour from the comfortable path his parents helped him pave after a family tragedy. Our protagonist finds himself on the Benzini Brother’s circus train filled with performers, animals, and workers.  It’s interesting, through Jacob’s eyes, readers find themselves mystified by the performers like the circus’ audience. Only to be  horrified by the harshness of life outside The Big Top a few pages later. It seems this duality is strongly associated with any form of entertainment. Not to far fetched from the modern day revelations, such as the Weinstein allegations, that have gained light.

Speaking of duality, the plot shifts between young Jacob and old Jacob in the retirement home. I guess the function of this is to confirm his survival after the accident and the outcome of his affair with Marlena.

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Jacob takes a detour. The leading lady, Marlena, took a detour with August through elopement. Even how Rosie the elephant ends up with them is due to a detour.

The story is quite simple and straightforward so if you are the type that likes to dig a little deeper, sadly I think you’ll quickly hit that pipe. The pace of the story reminds me of the movement of an old train, steady, with the occasional jolt. I pretty much mellowed out during the middle of the book. The dialogue became predictable and soon after the story. It’s never a good sign when my stubbornness is the main force pulling me through. But then, to keep the same analogy, the pace of the book sped up towards the end when you figure out what “red-lighted” means, as Jacob plays hero to save Marlena from August, Uncle Al’s demise, and much more.

Our main character is an impulsive sweetheart with a good sense of humor and I feel that compensates for the slowness of the book. Personally, I grew to love the characters, appreciate Jacob’s and Walter’s friendship, and the parts set in menagerie are my favorite. Marlene is your typical damsel in distress – the only moment that stuck with me was when she went to give food to a starving worker. Considering her predicament and elopement, she got guts.


While reading this book, I discovered that circus performers trained in the same building I was interning at. Not long after, I attended my friends’ private graduation ceremony where a professor mentioned that studying English Literature was like taking a detour from the path your parents paved for you. Looks like it was fate to read this instead of Paradise.

And so by the end of Water for Elephants, I thought about my friends’ detours, Jacob’s detour, and wondered if I had taken one without even realizing.

I loved the ending.

I closed the book with a smile on my face and thought of detours while scrambling for clothes. Work was in 20 minutes.

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