I read this to see what all the hype was about (I kept seeing it everywhere on Goodreads and on best seller lists). Plus I kind of want to see the movie and I always like to read the book before I see the big screen version since the movie people usually screw things up. I gotta say, I was pretty disappointed with this novel. I was expecting a wicked awesome story and interesting characters and romance and intrigue, but I ended up dragging my feet through the last third of it. I just didn’t really care what happened anymore since I couldn’t really give a shit about any of Gruen’s characters. I think maybe if she had given at least the main characters more of a back story and elaborated on some of the crap they went through before joining the circus it would’ve pulled me in more. She could’ve given a flashback or two or something. But all of their histories are vague and barely hinted at aside from saying oh it was just awful, much worse than this crazy circus shiz so I’m just going to stay here and continue to be depressed, abused, and flat-broke. I guess Marlena is the character we’re given the most background info on and hers is just weak (her parents disowned her because she was raised Catholic and yet she married August, a Jew). Meanwhile Camel, the old worthless drunkard, is willing to die rather than go home to his son and family. Wtf happened between them that was so bad? I want to know! Give me something
so that I can care at least a teensy bit for this old guy who apparently is worthy of being pitied by all the main characters and most of the working crew. Give me one redeeming factor so that I can quit rooting for the old fart to just die already and quit stealing everyone’s booze and crying about how bad he’s got it. Arg.
Walter/Kinko and Rosie the elephant were pretty much the only characters I liked. Walter actually had some personality and an interesting point-of-view and Rosie breathed some life into the story with her spunkiness and charm. Now that I think about it, I cared a lot more for the animals of the story (the show horses, the orangutan, etc.) than I did the people. But maybe that’s what Gruen was going for, who knows.
The whole story, especially the way Gruen switches back and forth between past and present time through the eyes of once-young and now-old Jacob, reminded me of the movie The Notebook
. I’ll admit that movie choked me up a little the first time I saw it but that same technique just wasn’t heart-wrenching at all in this novel. I did like the story overall and thought it had a lot of potential, but the writing wasn’t very good at all (everything’s cut-and-dry, “this happened and then this happened…”) and the characters were generally flat and undeveloped. Plus, as a historical fiction novel, I was hoping for more insight into the Depression era and how people lived through it (supposedly Gruen researched it extensively), but I didn’t really learn anything or even feel like it was taking place in that time aside from a few random comments about how these are hard times and the people don’t know whether they’ll get paid or not (but that could really be any time, right?). I don’t know, for some reason I just couldn’t get emotionally invested in this book. Hopefully the movie is better.