There are two aspects of literature that have to be acknowledged in rating a novel or piece of writing (and these are extremely technical terms): enthrallability and actual value. They hold entirely different rating systems, as books like the ever-loved “Twilight” may have an interesting concept/story you feel might pan out but is so technically terrible with horrible character development and weak messages that you are ashamed to actually own a copy. Not that I know from personal experience*.
This conflict is one I confront myself with a lot. I absolutely love, with only mild self-scorn, period romance novels. And I’m not talking classy Mr. Darcy-Rebecca-I-Don’t-Give-A-Damn older novels, I’m talking men named Lord Aiden Quinn Allistair in morning coats and half naked ladies with ridiculous artists-rendering cleavage on the covers. (Pseudonyms abound!) So, I don’t normally have any issue with a lack of quality or any sort of lasting value in a fun read.
Except for when it’s ridiculously apparent that the author tried and failed. “Water For Elephants” is like that; the story is amazing, if a little cliched in parts, but for the most part is driving. I want to care about the characters – but none except the main protagonist are given a chance to shine in any way. Snippets of background are fleeting, like the novel was edited down from a much longer, involved manuscript and some major scenes were left on the floor of some underpaid copywriter.
Jacob Jankowski’s story is told as flashback; narration shifts between nursing home present and his trauma-filled past. I think my biggest complaint about the book is that I pretty much adore the old man. He’s crotchety and cranky and unapologetic and everything I hope to be when I’m older and feel forgotten by the world. Aware of his slipping grip on memory and what it means to be himself, he is reminded through the story we are told of his last days as a free wheeling youth. Adore as I might the old coot, the way his past is forced upon the reader – younger Jankowski’s opinions of who characters are and what feels like a lot of “this man ended up this way because of this, single, one-time-only act” or “she is this way because of this one thing” is terribly unfair. No one in the history of the world has been one dimensional; the author gives you so much of Jankowski to draw from it is almost criminal that the rest of the novel’s cast is denied an opportunity. The elephant comes close, but even then is more of a prop than a catalyst.
It is unfortunate; the plot itself was good – I finished the book in a night, and read it one more time at a slower pace. Both times, I appreciated the story but was left unsatisfied by the experience, wanting something more out of it.
Not unlike the time I met a man named actually Aiden Quinn, who despite being ridiculously charming and in possession of a mild Irish accent did not immediately ravish me and steal me away to his huge family estate in the British Isles. Instead I processed his return and sent him on his charming way, to be forever teased by my coworkers about my Irish love.
*this is a lie. a large one.