This novel by Sara Gruen is a bestseller, which means lots of people have bought it, and lots of people have probably even read it. The author skillfully moves back and forth from the past and Jacob’s tenure as a circus vet during the Depression to the present, where he’s in his 90s and living in a nursing home. Gruen did extensive historical research on the American train circus and incorporated many of the incidents and procedures she found into the story. The main character is likable, and as a reader I cared about what happened to him, appreciating his love of animals in his youth and his humor and curmudgeonliness in old age.
But I found certain elements of the novel disappointing or unconvincing. Any character not described as a “working man” talks like a college graduate which, I would venture to guess, was not what most circus performers and management were during the Depression. The author’s descriptions are effective but spare–a current trend in fiction writing, I believe, in this age of dominant cinematography. Her narrative voice sounds much like that of many other contemporary authors, and does not distinguish itself (but neither do the others, usually). And the author shamelessly plucks a large chunk of plot from William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, with a debonair Jewish paranoid schizophrenic married to a beautiful Catholic girl, and a young, innocent non-Jewish man who joins the threesome. (Gotcha! Ms. Gruen. Did you think we wouldn’t notice? Did you think we’re all too young to remember not only the novel but the movie? You know, the one with Kevin Kline and MERYL STREEP, for cryin’ out loud? Really.) Young Jacob falls in love with Marlena, is suspected by the jealous and volatile August of having an affair with her, and watches as the cuckolded husband smashes up the place like a mad bull elephant. Gruen only diverges from this plot when she gives it a happier ending than Sophie and Nathan’s. (Otherwise, she’s have had to give the book the title, Marlena’s Choice.) Had she not plagiarized her plot, I could have enjoyed it much more.
It’s a good book, but not a great book. When I wondered out loud to the Cap’n how such books become bestsellers, he reminded me that Dianetics was also a bestseller. That explains a lot.
To cleanse my palate, I have begun Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I don’t think I’ve ever read Rushdie before, but after about 20 pages, I’m already enamored of his style which is spare but beautifully lyrical, unique, and gives me the guilty, pleasurable feeling of reading children’s stories again. I find it commendable that Rushdie and Garcia Marquez, whose magical realism gives me a similar feeling, are considered swanky and sophisticated.