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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The Time Traveler’s Wife

When I think of time travel, I sigh because there are a couple of things I would have done differently. Perhaps I would have even gone back to see how my parent’s first date really went because their stories don’t match.

I like to believe that most people love the idea of having the chance to re-do their past mistakes because no matter how hard we try to forget, some come back in different manifestations to haunt us. But I think the romanticization of time traveling dwindles the more you watch or read works that revolve around it. For example: Steins Gate, BBC’s Doctor Who, all time favorite Back to the Future, and many more.

It’s obvious that time travel is central to this novel but what sets Audrey Niffenegger’s novel from all those works is that she brings this grand theme close to home. Her story isn’t profoundly science fiction and doesn’t revolve around great adventures or the end of the world due to the butterfly effect but rather creates a narrative that makes time travel more tangible  with a balanced blend of science, art, and normality. Niffenegger’s form of time travel is also unique because she uses biology to explain how our main character can go back in time. Don’t worry, if you’ve done high school biology you’ll be fine. If you have no background knowledge on the natural science then google is your friend.

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The way she arranges the events needed a few minutes to adjust to. However, the more I talk to people about the book, the more I realize the adjustment period varies. Even if it takes you a couple of hours, you’ll eventually adapt to the shifts in time period. Don’t let it discourage you!

Our main couple meet for the first time in a peculiar way – the kind of way I think most people don’t want to meet anyone for the first time. If you read the book, you’ll know why her form of time travel always left Henry in awkward situations. Henry, our time traveler, is passionate about art, literature, and can’t handle stress at all. Clare, our artist, smart, talented, and strong. Both love each other very much – physically and emotionally.

Niffenegger provides both protagonist perspectives, reflected in the change of tone and style of writing. Frankly I enjoyed Henry’s parts more; the words flowed more and there were so many times I genuinely laughed. Love and loss are very strong themes in this story. Not only because it is a love story between Claire and Henry but other forms of love are explored – familial love and unrequited love. A pair also engage in a parasitic relationship – is that still called love?

Specific to familial love, parents are not perfect beings and sometimes you have to reach a certain level of maturity and empathy to see that they actually do love you. Often, you gotta peel of the layers of their actions to hear those three words.  It’s rarely said in my household but actions speak louder than words. Claire and her mother’s relationship exemplify this and I believe the quote below supports my point nicely:

(From Henry’s perspective and Lucille is Claire’s mother)

“…satisfied, for a moment, that her mother really did love her. I think about my mother singing lieder after lunch on a summer afternoon…She loved me. I never questioned her love. Lucille was changeable as wind. The poem Clare holds is evidence, immutable, undeniable, a snapshot of an emotion.” – The Time Traveler’s Wife

For the theme loss, I think of all the things Henry misses out on and the two chapters, Baby Dreams and Feet Dreams. If you find yourself skimming through the pages both these chapters will recapture your focus. The disrupted flow of the story gives space to exploring the heaviness of the events that take place to inspire these dreams. I can’t recall  ever reading such detailed writing of dreams, filled with symbolism and reflecting one the most distressful times for our characters. It’s been a while since I finished reading the book and there is a passage in Baby Dreams that comes to mind as an image that I would like to paint someday.

When I just started reading, there were a lot of times where I questioned the title since Henry possessed the ability. Why pay homage to Claire? I think it is a way to always remember her. Time Travel is such a overwhelming theme that it’s easy to forget those who don’t possess the ability. Moreover, how many can really stay with a being that can disappear at any moment. It also makes you wonder what kind of person would marry a time traveler. According to Niffenegger, it’s Claire. However, she certainly doesn’t match everyone’s “Time Traveler’s Wife” criteria but it’s a conversation starter.

Rather than turning into a story filled with adventure, you witness the unfolding of these two characters relationship – from when they meet till old age. On the surface, Time Traveling appears to be gift but the price to pay outweighs it and Niffeneger brilliantly lays it out as we read. The loss, the pain,the loneliness but at the same time a lot of love comes out of it.

It was a bittersweet adventure with this book.

-MS-

 

Quote Boat: The Time Traveler’s Wife

I’m about halfway through The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and a couple of days ago I came across the following quote

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Context: Claire’s grandma finds out about Henry and tries to caution Claire about the potential life she will live with him.


It instantly got me thinking about mothers in fairy tales. Since I only remember these stories vaguely, I could only come up with a generalization: Rarely do mothers take an active role in fairy tales.

I say rarely because I am presently unaware of any fairy tale that contradicts this. For all I know, there could be a few that contradict my generalization.

I couldn’t shake it off. I wanted to know more. I was confident that I would find an article or a blog post exploring this theme.

I found an article on the website, For Book’s Sake, and it provided a nice overview of the different females and their roles in fairy tales. Specifically on Mothers:

Mothers are never protagonists. Goldilocks, Jack and Red Riding Hood have mamas who embody a child’s-eye view of a parent – the big someone who tells you to do the right thing, a straw doll; set up to be gleefully smashed down.“-Vanessa Woolf-Hoyle

This other blogpost I read seems to justify how Mother’s are presented in fairy tales. That, in order for the protagonist to grow they need to, more or less, go out into the world. And of course a caring mother wouldn’t want her child to be doing something potentially dangerous.

Although it makes sense, that kind of perspective paints a general picture that Mothers are more of an obstacle than a person/ character who can potentially function in various ways in a story. And perhaps it varies from culture to culture. The fairy tales I grew up with (and I feel are more widespread) are predominantly Western.

I’m pretty sure more critical writing has been done on this subject. Something I’ll be looking into in the future.

What do you think?

-MS-