I just finished reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen about a young man who loses both of his parents in a car accident and joins the circus in the 1930s. Gruen heavily researched the traveling circuses of the time period to create this fast paced, well written and constructed novel. I very much enjoyed it (it was a page turner), but wouldn’t call it a masterpiece. It reminded me a lot of the movies Big Fish and Friend Green Tomatoes and John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. The most powerful aspect of the story was its disturbing portrayal of the helplessness of the aging process. But other than that, I never really understood the whole purpose of telling a story about the circus — other than thinking that it would be a novel (no pun intended) storyline and for some cheap symbolic effect.
When I started reading the book, I hadn’t given much thought to the author, her name, or gender. But after about ten pages, I kept feeling like the main character, Jacob, was a woman and not a male. Then I looked at the cover and saw that it was a female writer. I often wonder about how accurately an author is able to portray characters of other genders, ethnicities, etc. As a matter of fact, as the story went on, I also had the feeling that certain descriptions of the protagonist did not ring true to me as a male. In other words, the character was not completely believable.
Maybe this sensation was simply a defense mechanism to protect myself from other feelings related to that disturbing portrayal of aging that I mentioned before. The humiliation that Jacob suffers in losing faculties is obviously frightening to anyone, and I admit that it is not a comfortable thing to read about. It also kept giving me flashbacks to my grandfather’s own years spent in an assisted living facility, and it disturbed me enormously to even consider that he would have suffered humiliation, loneliness, and disorientation.
But that’s simply not how I remember my grandfather’s years in assisted living. He was vibrant, active, and social. At least while he was mobile and semi autonomous. Maybe there were things about getting old that he was simply too embarrassed to discuss with us.
Nevertheless, I have a theory that losing faculties is actually a necessary part of the aging process to protect us against the fear of death, the loss of loved ones, and solitude. I was kind of hoping that my theory might be correct and that like her characterization of males, Gruen was also not quite accurate about the aging process. Her vision of aging, comes very much from the vantage point of someone much younger, and that view does not reveal a pretty picture.