This is one of those books that customers have been recommending to me for years, but I’ve been never felt much of an urge to read myself. With the movie coming out I figured I would give it a shot, not that I have any particular plans to see the movie, but just to see what all the fuss is about.
We’ll start with the good: Gruen obviously did a lot of research on Depression-era train circuses. She does a good job describing what life on tour with working men, performers, sideshow freaks, and a menagerie of animals might be like. It’s a very quick, easy read (I read it in two sittings) that moves along at a decent clip.
Some problems I had:
1) Jacob, the protagonist, is debilitatingly passive throughout the story. He constantly finds himself in circumstances where others take control from him, and he does nothing to stop them. Other characters make almost all his decisions for him, which is frustrating beyond belief. For instance, he makes a vow to himself not to let any of the animals be harmed again – but then stands idly by as the elephant is tortured with a hook. Multiple times.
2) The dialogue is weak, at times painfully so, and does not accurately reflect the time period. (I’m no historian, but I just can’t imagine circus performers in 1931 saying “Stop being such a jerk” or “What’s up?” to each other.)
3) The love story is poorly developed. Jacob and Marlena go from a few casual encounters (most of which occur in the presence of her husband) to jumping on each other and professing their undying love. A bit more buildup, giving us some insight into their motivations to risk it all for each other, would have been nice.
4) For some reason, Gruen chose to make Marlena’s abusive husband Jewish. It adds nothing to the plot other than a bit of backhanded anti-Semitism.
5) There is a “twist” near the end of the book. It felt somewhat unfair, because the premise of the twist is based on an obfuscation early in the book. Being the close reader that I am, I suspected the truth far before it was revealed, which took away a lot of the dramatic impact.
For all of that, however, things do get interesting in the last hundred pages or so. Out of nowhere, characters begin asserting themselves and making personal life decisions. There was even a subtle undercurrent of humor – funny enough to make me laugh out loud a few times. I’ve read that Gruen took two long breaks during the writing of this book, finally locking herself in a closet to avoid distractions at the end. I have to wonder if this last section was written in that final push. If so, it made me wish she had locked herself in the closet a bit earlier, because I almost gave up on this one halfway through.
Originally I wasn’t going to review this book, because the purpose of this blog is to recommend books we love, not rag on the ones we don’t. The book was very readable, though, and the setting and latter half of this book were engaging enough to redeem it. I would recommend reading this one at the beach or on an airplane.
And, just in case you’re interested, here is the trailer for the movie adaptation: