Overhyped books can go either way with me. Some (The DaVinci Code, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter) simply do not work for me. Others (The Kite Runner, Life of Pi) just thrill me to pieces. So I’m never one to jump on a book bandwagon because of the hype, nor do I avoid the wildly popular. I go by the premise and the judgment of like-minded readers.
The premise was what sucked me in to Water for Elephants. A Depression-era circus train? I figured that even if the book is lame, the setting itself is likely to hold some interest. And it did. Sara Gruen fills her story with lots of detail about the types of people who worked on the circus, how it was organized, what daily life was like, and so on. The narrator, Jacob Jankowski, joins the circus almost by chance after ditching his final exams at veterinary school. So we get to see this world through the eyes of a complete outsider.
The story itself is nothing special. Jacob joins the circus, makes friends, gets to know the animals, and has some amusing adventures; there’s a dastardly villain—two of them really—and a pretty girl. The good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad, and the plot spins along. Nothing special, but nothing annoying.
Gruen sets the story as a flashback, so we also get to see Jacob in his 90s in a nursing home losing patience with the limitations placed upon him. During occasional breaks in the main story, we come back to the older Jacob, and some of these sections are genuinely moving.
For me, this is the perfect kind of book to listen to. Both readers (young Jacob and old Jacob) were excellent. Yes, there’s some overexplanation, the characters are one-dimensional, the story is predictable, and the ending is contrived to the point of being ridiculous. But the thing is, it’s a fun story to listen to. It’s simple enough that I rarely felt I missed a significant plot point, and if I did, it was easy enough to figure out what happened. And I did enjoy spending a little time in such an unusual world. If I had read it in print, I might have been troubled by the book’s flaws, but not so on audio. It made my commute a little more pleasant, and sometimes that’s all I want a book to do.