I have a problem with books when the nicest thing people can think of to say about them is, "It is based on a true story," or, "At least it was well researched." It is the same as saying a woman "has a great personality" or a man is "super sweet". In the case of fiction, as with these backwards insults to humans, the "based on a true story" and "well researched" labels actually mean that the books are ugly or stupid. That is not to say I am against true stories or research, but if it's the nicest thing you can say about a novel I'm probably not going to want to read it. When, while reading Water for Elephants, I found myself sighing and thinking, "At least it's obviously well researched, and I bet some of this really happened," I knew Sara Gruen and I had a problem.
Perhaps it is the fact that the characters of this book are completely un-like the author that makes every conversation and event in this story ring false. The dust jacket on this book tells me that Sara Gruen is in her early- to mid-thirties and lives in an environmental community north of Chicago. The central character of Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski, is a man who appears in the story as both a twenty-one year old and a ninety-something year old. He is a vet, who joins a circus in the 1930s, during the depression, and gets to go on some nasty adventures that involve a lot of vomit, blood, and erections. I have often in the past had problems with books written by men and told from a female character's point of view, but I don't remember ever being so distracted by the reverse as I was in this book. Jacob, both young and old, is constantly getting flustered, turning away to hide his emotion, getting cornered by other men who desperately want to know how he feels about his love interest, and voicing the emotional highs and lows of the animals he cares for. I am basically in favor of the human- and animal-rights message that I eventually thought might be the point of this book. However, when Jacob would describe how all of the animals and people liked him better than everyone else, it just made him come off like a pipsqueak rather than bringing home the point that humane treatment brings positive results.
It is, frankly, beyond me why Ms. Gruen chose to write this book from a male perspective. The only conclusion I can come up with is that she thought it was the best way, in some kind of perverse, Annie Proulx thought pattern to make the descriptions, and specifically everything relating to sex, moderately unpleasant. Mission accomplished.
My advice, if you plan to read this book, is to read it with the voice of Dr. Archibald from Veggie Tales - a sort of silly, mid-Atlantic whine: ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfxBRc9Ow_E&feature=PlayList&p=3B02776B5B9C752E&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=6 ). I found this much more enjoyable toward the end. These are a few sample sentences from the book to use for practicing the voice before you start the book: "Those were the salad days, the halcyon years!" and "And then I laugh, because it's all so ridiculous and so gorgeous and it's all I can do to not melt into a fit of giggles." I don't know if the writing is supposed to be funny and odd in a Jack Handy way, but I sense that it's not, and that makes me think "some of this is probably based on a true story . . . and at least it seems well researched."